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A Field of Faith, Hope, and Love

by on December 29, 2016 1:49 PM

When Ellen Campbell’s son, Matthew, was first diagnosed with intellectual disabilities, she and her husband were told he wouldn’t be able to read, write, or work, and that the outlook was “rather bleak.” But since then, Campbell says, Matthew, now 44, has done all of those things. He has two part-time jobs where he gets to meet other people, and he has a life that is full and busy, including living in a residential program where he helps with shopping, cooking, and laundry.

His home is part of Strawberry Fields, a nonprofit that Campbell credits with helping her son’s life grow.

“It is because of Strawberry Fields that I feel he’s been able to establish a life in the community that’s remarkably more independent than I ever thought it would be,” she says.

Strawberry Fields, which today provides a range of services in the areas of intellectual disabilities, mental health, and early intervention to toddlers, infants, and adults, had a modest start as a day program on a farm in Yarnell in the early 1970s. A group of families whose children had intellectual disabilities came together to create a place where their children could go during the summer. CEO Cynthia Pasquinelli says those families did not want to see their loved ones placed in institutions. The families were able to raise money for the farm, which gets its name from the famous Beatles’ song.

It was 1972 when it was incorporated, and Strawberry Fields will be celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. Since the 1970s, the location has changed and the services and mission have broadened, but the belief in those being served has remained steadfast.

“We all started based on the belief that individuals with disabilities, no matter what that disability is — physical, mental, intellectual — they have the right to live in the community and enjoy and benefit from the community that we all contribute to,” Pasquinelli says.

That is the group’s No. 1 mission. “We know that every individual has gifts. Every individual can contribute to this life,” Pasquinelli says. “That’s the hallmark of what we do.”

The founding farm, which was started even before the incorporation in 1972, was sold in the late 1970s, and the program moved to State College. Now, with a full- and part-time staff of about 175, its programs include 14 residential homes in the State College area — three serve adults with mental illness and 11 serve adults with intellectual disabilities — early intervention services for children in Centre, Huntingdon, Mifflin, and Juniata counties; case management for those receiving mental-health services; and, the most recent addition, Scraps & Skeins, a fabric and yarn store staffed by Strawberry Fields consumers and volunteers. While much of

the organization’s funding comes from the state and county of ces for the services it provides, Strawberry Fields also receives charitable contributions and is a United Way partner agency.

Pasquinelli, who has been with Strawberry Fields since 1985 and served as CEO since 1987, notes that young people can stay within a school system until they turn 21. While the school system does a great job teaching them about daily living, she says, when they graduate there are limited resources.

“The need for our services is overwhelming,” she says. “There’s a waiting list for just about every service that we have.”

Pasquinelli says she was drawn to the eld after a family member was placed in a state hospital for post-partum depression. Now, she says, there is the belief that people with mental illnesses can recover and manage their lives.

Since the 1980s, Strawberry Fields has provided services for adults with mental illness. That now includes an apartment program and two residential programs. That was expanded in the 1990s to include case management for children and adults with mental illness and early intervention for children 3 years old and younger.


Strawberry Fields provides Early Intervention (EI) services, sending staff to work with children who show a delay in one of ve areas: communications, motor, social, cognitive, and adaptive skills. In Pennsylvania, if a child meets those criteria, they are eligible for services.

Along with Susan Drenning, early intervention director, the staff of about 20 includes physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, and developmental teachers. Drenning says many of the children they work with transition out of the program, while others with lifelong conditions continue with other agencies and the school districts.

A premature baby, for example, might have trouble feeding, so an occupational therapist would work with the baby on muscle control to help develop that skill. Or a premature baby might have trouble with a motor skill such as turning his or her head or rolling over, which is where a physical therapist can help.

Drenning, who has been at Strawberry Fields for 15 years and another agency for 13 years prior to that, says you develop an appreciation for little things you otherwise might take for granted.

“The first time a child takes food from a spoon, and they’ve been tube-fed, and, all of a sudden, they’re able to take a bite and swallow it, it’s amazing,” she says.

Or, she says, you run into a mother who remembers you and tells you about what early intervention meant for her family.


Michael Webb and Megan Spaulding of Milesburg have been working with Strawberry Fields for their 2-year-old daughter, Athena Spaulding. Athena, they say, had sensory problems, including needing constant movement and not talking as much as is typical for her age.

After an evaluation when she was 18 months, Athena received speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. Webb and Spaulding say there are still challenges, but marked improvement. Athena’s vocabulary has expanded, and she has become more communicative.

“Athena now jumps, hops, does somersaults, and climbs on everything,” Megan Spaulding says.

Michael Webb says working with therapists has helped Athena become more aware of her environment, so she can navigate the stairs, for example. Therapy could include massage therapy and exercises such as climbing up and down a few stairs, practicing pushing objects, and going up and down a slide.

At the end of sessions, the therapists talk with Webb and Spaulding about next steps and exercises they can do between sessions. Webb says the therapists tailored their sessions to Athena.

“I think they’re a phenomenal bunch of women, I really do, because they understand Athena and work around the person that she is,” he says. “They also know that she’s a very independent little girl, so they incorporate their therapy into her independent play.”

Megan Spaulding adds, “She still has got a long way to go, but she’s come so far from where she started.”


The Strawberry Fields programs also include the Toddler Learning Centre — or TLC — a socialization group run cooperatively with Schlow Centre Region Library that gives children under 3 a chance to play and socialize. It had its start more than a decade ago and typically has a waiting list.

Drenning, who had worked with a similar program that was successful at another, agency, brainstormed with Anita Ditz, head of Children’s Services at Schlow, to start TLC.

“It’s been really good for our families to see that their kids can go out in the community and they can participate and they can be successful,” Drenning says.

The sessions run once a week for ve weeks and usually include about 12 families, with a mix of children who have developmental delays and those who don’t. Ditz says it offers a nonjudgmental environment for children to play, something that helps them later in the classroom.

“It’s creative play,” she says. “It’s an opportunity for kids to interact and for parents to get to know each other, too.”

Jennifer Lenkey, a State College mother, attended TLC recently with her son, Sylvester, 3, and daughter, Adelaide, 2.

“We love coming here. They get to play with the same kids every week and meet new people,” she says. At the end of the session, the leader — in this case, Marcia Bruce — rounded the group up into a circle for a snack and story.

Bruce, a developmental teacher with Strawberry Fields, says everything in the room is chosen for

a reason — from the musical instruments to the blocks and dolls to the snacks served in little paper cups that encourage the children to use their ngers. There are no chairs in the room — just steps to climb on, kitchens to play in, and trucks to steer.

“We want them to have as much interaction for different skill sets as they can,” she says.

Bruce and others say the sessions are important for parents, too, giving them a chance to talk with each other and exchange ideas.


Campbell, former chair of Strawberry Fields’ board and a founder of Scraps & Skeins, says she became involved a year or so after Matthew became a Strawberry Fields consumer.

“We wanted him to be able to live as independently as he is able, and he is doing that with their support. He has grown tremendously,” she says.

She had the idea for Scraps & Skeins when she and her husband, Jim, were in Ithaca, New York, and came across a yarn and knitting store with supplies that had been donated. The store worked with a youth-service agency to support young women. She thought it might be something Strawberry Fields could do as a job-development program.

She credits the leadership of Strawberry Fields as being open to new ideas, even if this one might have seemed a stretch at first. As it turns out, the shop has taken off over the past two years and, now located at 3054 Enterprise Drive, is thriving. Open Thursdays and the third Saturday of the month, the shop has three employees with plans for a fourth, along with volunteers who work together to sort, weigh, prepare, and price the fabrics, buttons, and other supplies that are donated.

The shop also provides jobs, volunteer opportunities, and a chance for people with mental-health issues to be in an affirming environment, says Campbell, who oversees the shop with Lynn Rogers.

Campbell described the people involved with Strawberry Fields as “dedicated, compassionate, caring, knowledgeable, and full of hope and full of faith.”

“Strawberry Fields, from the top down, is filled with people who are doing what they’re doing because they truly care and want to provide a good life for people with disabilities,” she says.

The organization has just started developing a strategic plan for where it will grow and focus in the upcoming three to ve years. Pasquinelli says the organization wants to make sure it does what is right for the organization, the people it serves, and the community.

“I see people in a better place than they were the days before,” she says. “Is it challenging? You bet. But it’s so rewarding when you see someone graduate from that mental-health program, and they move out on their own and do really well, and then they come back and help others. It’s really wonderful to an adult who’s living in one of our [intellectual disabilities] group homes get a job, have a success, develop a relationship that is meaningful, get a pet. Those are the things that make it all worthwhile.”

Anne Danahy is an editor at Penn State, freelance writer, and State College resident.
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