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Maria Sacarelos, an older woman from Brazil who helps her husband run their family-owned store, has an understanding of the trials and tribulations of raising a child, perhaps more acutely than most parents. After Sacarelos noticed her son Nicholas’ hyperactive behavior at age 2, a doctor prescribed a medication that altered Nicholas’ behavior immensely–he stopped eating and sleeping and began to bang his head on things.

“At that time, Nicholas looked like he was in a prison,” his mother said.

Now 35, Nicholas has been diagnosed as developmentally disabled and lives at home with his parents. Though he still does not speak and is characterized as a “low-functioning” adult, Nicholas’ mother no longer considers him to be imprisoned by his behavior. She attributes that turnaround to the staff at Oak-Leyden.

Oak-Leyden Developmental Services is a community-based, non-profit agency in Oak Park that provides programs to help people with developmental disabilities. The programs and services are designed for children under 3 years old and for adults over 21. Since 1956 Oak-Leyden has been helping Forest Park families, like the Sacarelos, and improves the lives of not only its clients, but its clients’ families as well.

Janelle Morales’ daughter Chloe was diagnosed with hypotonia, which affects her muscle development, shortly after her birth in October of 2005. The young girl experienced delays with sitting, walking and talking. Soon after a move to the Chicago area, Janelle learned that Chloe qualified for the Early Intervention Program at Oak-Leyden and since then, Janelle and her family have seen dramatic changes.

“She’s sitting now on her own for longer periods of time, trying to crawl, and is more vocal and sociable,” Janelle Morales said.

Aside from the improvements in her daughter’s development the Morales family as a whole has learned from the programs at Oak-Leyden. Janelle, her husband and their 3-year-old daughter Lauren are closer, thanks in part to the services they can receive right in their home in Forest Park.

“Oak-Leyden teaches you and your family so much,” Janelle Morales said. “They make you do homework and be involved with the progress of your child. My husband and daughter have both benefited from Chloe doing better, and Lauren sees the staff working with Chloe and mimics what they do.”

Oak-Leyden offers its Early Intervention Program for children up to age 3. The Early Intervention Program provides social, educational, physical, occupational, and speech therapies to children with developmental delays and disabilities as well as support services to their families.

“You try to do a million things as a mom to begin with,” Janelle Morales said. “But you are not given a handbook with a child with a disability. Oak Leyden came in and provided all these options and sent a social worker to my home. I would have been lost and not known half the stuff I know without them.”

After graduating from high school, students with developmental disabilities cannot instantly participate in Oak-Leyden programs. According to Bob Atkinson, the president and CEO of Oak-Leyden for the last 16 years, interested clients must first be evaluated by Pass Agent, an independent, non-profit organization that is funded by the state to provide screening and referrals.

Such was the case of Francis Carandang, another Forest Park resident.

Francis, who has a developmental disability, attended Enger School in Franklin Park and was referred to Oak-Leyden. Currently, he participates in the full-day program, which runs like a typical school day from 8:30 a.m. until 3:15 p.m. He is 31 years old.

“Francis likes it at Oak-Leyden,” his sister Lisa said. “What he likes about it is the interaction with the other people. It’s easy for him to be there because there is not only the learning aspect–like reading and writing–but the other important part is the socializing that he does during the day.”

The program and services have been effective, according to Lisa Carandang, so much so that she can include her brother in social outings with her friends.

“The biggest change that I’ve noticed is that he is now more easy-going with other people, especially new people,” she said. “He now extends his hand to you when he meets you and has more of a social personality. Before, he was locked into himself.”

According to Atkinson, these improvements are not unusual and are a result of an interactive approach taken with hundreds of clients and their families. Increasingly though, Oak-Leyden is concerned with its ability to fund such programs, particularly because the organization is so dependent on state money.

Some 86 percent of Oak-Leyden Developmental Services’ annual budget must be approved by state legislators. The rest comes from fundraisers and contributions from area townships. Forest Park, a member of Proviso Township, does not contribute to the cost of services.

Recently though, a bowling alley in Forest Park played host to an annual fundraising event. It’s entirely a grass-roots effort, Atkinson said, which only helps to raise awareness about developmental disabilities.

“Our credo is to include people in the community, and that is how our program has developed,” Atkinson said.