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New beginnings for the developmentally handicapped

New beginnings for the developmentally handicapped

[photo of Karin Steiner]Karin's son Nicolas inspired her to start New Leaf Link.

Life for Karin Steiner, Ed’96, PhD’05, has been an interesting and circuitous journey. Along the way she has lived in the U.S., China, and Japan before returning home to Canada.

Back in 1980, Karin was teaching language and literature in Yokohama, Japan, and enjoying the lifestyle and wealth of culture, when her world shifted. Her three-year-old son Nicolas was diagnosed with autism. Any services available to him were offered only in Japanese. Karin made the decision to return to Canada and settle in the countryside just north of Kingston, where both quality and pace of life, along with a sense of community, appealed to her.

Karin was able to enrol Nicolas in public school, where he was integrated in school-to-community classrooms. He completed his schooling at Sydenham Secondary School, while Karin had meanwhile returned to university as a mature student and embarked on an ambitious program of her own. She completed her BA and then a PhD in Education, where she was researching how we learn, a subject that is close to her heart.

Her journey took another turn when Nicolas graduated from high school into a near complete void of services for adults with developmental disabilities. “Quite simply, Nicolas was transitioning from high school to nothing,” Karin recalled. “Since the 1980s, with the inclusive schools movement, we’ve made great strides for children with disabilities, but unfortunately, for many of these students, and particularly those living in rural areas, once school ends, their opportunities also end.”

So Karin founded New Leaf Link, a non-profit registered charitable organization for developmentally disabled 18-65 year olds who live in Frontenac County. New Leaf Link was founded on the premises that we all have something to learn, we all have abilities, and we all have something to contribute to society.

New Leaf Link gets all of its money through fundraising. Participants are able to attend full-day programs in three areas: functional skills and literacy, arts and crafts, and health and recreation. Horseback riding is proving to be one of the most popular activities. While some of the participants were reluctant to jump right onto a horse, they were introduced carefully, in a step-by-step process in which they learned all aspects of animal care and grooming.

Another important program has been the “Food for all Seasons” project, in which the learning has spanned all subjects from the science of nutrition and dietary requirements, to the mathematics of budgeting and cooking. Participants have visited a supermarket, shopped for ingredients, and prepared a meal to take home to their families.

For Karin, New Leaf Link is both a necessity and a labour of love. But she hopes it is also something more than that. With a long wait for residential and group home vacancies, she wants to develop a program model for developmentally disadvantaged adults that can be used everywhere, but especially in rural communities. With the incidence of autism on the rise and government funding for services tough to come by, the need for Karin’s model is clear.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-2 cover]