Thursday, June 10, 2010

Our Local Ambassador for Easter Seals

By Andrew Scott
Pocono Record Writer
June 10, 2010 Like most 2-year-olds, Giovanna Apel is learning how to climb up onto things.

Like the living room table or the couch.

"She's fearless," her father, Laurence Apel, said while he and her mother, Leonilda Apel, watched her play with her toys in their Middle Smithfield Township home as "Elmo's World" came on TV.

Giovanna is fearless now, but there was a time when her parents felt fear. It was when Leonilda Apel, 38, was pregnant with Giovanna in 2007, a year after the couple moved from their native Long Island, N.Y., into the Knoll Acres II development in Middle Smithfield Township.

"Mine was a high-risk pregnancy because of my age," Leonilda said, fondly encouraging Giovanna as she toddled over to her musical giraffe and pressed a button that produced a tune.

The ultrasound showed Giovanna had two holes in her heart. Doctors told the Apels there was a good chance she would be born with Down syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that affects physical and mental abilities and strikes one out of every 800 babies born.

When Giovanna was born via an emergency C-section on Dec. 3, 2007, a pediatrician immediately noticed she showed the facial features of a Down syndrome baby. Giovanna's blood work later verified the presence of an extra chromosome that causes the disease.

"At first, I was scared and depressed and asking myself why it had to be my baby," Leonilda said. "Then, the doctors told us we lucked out in the fact that Giovanna didn't have the physical problems that some Down syndrome children have."

As Giovanna grew older, her parents noticed she wasn't using her hands and seemed to have trouble grasping and holding things. She wasn't aware of her hands, a sign that the disease has affected her mentally.

The Apels contacted the Carbon-Monroe-Pike Mental Health/Mental Retardation Program, which referred them to an agency that provided a speech therapist and special instructor for Giovanna.

When the Apels realized they needed more, MH/MR referred them to Easter Seals. The program provides medical, therapeutic and preschool services and relies on state funding and community donations so that client families pay nothing out of their own pockets.

Easter Seals is an early-intervention program for children up to age 3, but support and references go beyond that as needed.

The program provided three key people, whom the Apels now fondly call their "dream team."

Occupational therapist Amy Kromer started working with Giovanna at 5 months old. Then speech therapist Adrienne Westheim and special instructor Danielle Weiss came on board.

Kromer, Westheim and Weiss each come on a different days to work with Giovanna for an hour. They follow Giovanna's lead.

"We let Giovanna decide what she wants to do, what toys or games she wants to play with or what kind of activity she wants to do," said Weiss of Saylorsburg. "Then, as she's doing it, we make it educational as well as fun for her. That's how she learns, grows and develops.

"But, the important thing is to let her choose what she's interested in, not force her to do something she doesn't want to do or have her sit somewhere for an hour."

A mother herself, Weiss has started a weekly play date support group for Giovanna and other disabled children, providing fun-based learning activities for children while allowing the parents to network with each other.

The specialists also suggest activities the family can do with Giovanna to keep her engaged and learning.

"They help us to help her," Leonilda said. "It's a great partnership."

Giovanna has progressed into a confident, curious, energetic toddler. "If she's determined to do something or learn something new, she doesn't give up until she achieves it," Laurence Apel said. "She wouldn't be where she is today if it wasn't for Easter Seals. They're very personable and genuinely concerned with her progress and how she's doing."

Giovanna gets to help raise public awareness about Easter Seals, having been selected as one of three child ambassadors to the annual Easter Seals Walk With Me benefit, supported by area businesses, on Wednesday on the Lehigh Parkway in Allentown. Festivities start at 4 p.m. and the walk starts at 6 p.m.

Families have the options of taking a one-mile walk or three-mile walk along the parkway. Participants are organizing walking teams to solicit sponsor donations.

The event's other two child ambassadors are Ricardo Rivera, 9, of Reading, and David Wint, 2, of Hellertown.

Leonilda Apel said, "If you have a child under 3 with a disability and don't know where to turn or if you want to see children get the proper help they need, please come out and support the walk. Giovanna and other kids are counting on you."

For information, call 610-289-0114, ext. 222, or visit

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