Today’s FACE of Birmingham is Sandy Naramore, the Executive Director of Mitchell’s Place, a center specializing in services for children, young adults, and families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Sandy’s heart of gold coupled with her can-do attitude makes her an exceptional leader. Armed with years of experience in education, special education and administration, Sandy touches the lives of all who cross her path.
How did Mitchell’s Place come to be?
Mitchell’s Place was founded in 2005 by Allen and Nancy Meisler, Mitchell’s parents. The Meislers created Mitchell’s Place to provide opportunities for other families to experience services “under one roof.” When Mitchell was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), his parents had to go from location to location to receive the necessary treatments, such as speech and occupational therapies. They would take Mitchell to yet a different location for social group activities. The hours spent going from place to place was frustrating and time consuming. At Mitchell’s Place, a family can receive all the necessary services from a comprehensive evaluation to full-time preschool or outpatient therapy. It was the Meisler’s dream to provide families a “one stop shop” facility offering all services to assist in making life simpler and less complicated,therefore having more quality family time.
Mitchell’s Place was established in 2005. How has it grown and changed over the years?
Over the past 8 years, we have expanded our original programs, as well as added new ones at Mitchell’s Place. We are a very complex facility that includes 4 preschool classrooms (Early Learning Program – ELP) comprised of five children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and five typically developing peers in each classroom. We have a one-to-one program (Teach Me) that allows for 6 children to receive direct services from an individual therapist throughout the day. The Teach Me children integrate into the classes for lengths of time that are measured by their individual needs. Our outpatient services include speech and occupational therapies, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), psychological and psychiatric services. Our multidisciplinary team conducts comprehensive evaluations which lead to recommendations for services. Mitchell’s Place also offers an after school program (ASAP) and summer camp for school age children with ASD which focuses on social skills and interaction ability. On average, we serve approximately 400 children throughout the various programs annually.
What kind of support has Mitchell’s Place received from the community and how can organizations/individuals get involved?
Birmingham is a very giving community. Mitchell’s Place benefits from various groups such as local Boy Scouts who complete their Eagle Scouts projects on our grounds. Many of these young men are personal friends of Mitchell or his sister, Anna. We also are recipients of several grants and foundation funds. Last year Mitchell’s Place received a grant from the Junior League of Birmingham which allowed us to provide SmartBoards for all classrooms as well as iPads throughout all programs. High school, college and graduate students complete required hours in our programs allowing them hands-on experience while providing even greater adult-student ratios for our classes. Mitchell’s Place reaps daily from the community involvement.
As executive director of Mitchell’s Place, what challenges do you face in your job?
One of the greatest challenges is providing services for every child on our lists. It is very difficult for me to tell a family that we do not have an opening and that I will have to put their name on our waiting list. I want every child who needs our services to receive them because I believe so strongly in what we do at Mitchell’s Place.
Is there a glaring misconception or stereotype that people still have regarding autism today?
I do think that society has a better understanding of autism and the various degrees in which it can exist, but I believe too many people still stereotype autism as being a condition in which the person withdraws into their own world and rejects outsiders. Many also still associate autism with intellectual disabilities. While there are countless misconceptions, these are the two that are more glaring to me than others based on conversations I have on a regular basis with people inquiring about the characteristics.
How can people get involved and help Mitchell’s Place? What are your biggest challenges?
We have a variety of opportunities to be involved in at Mitchell’s Place ranging from hands-on experience in one of our programs to serving on fundraiser committees. Each year on the same night as the Academy Awards, Mitchell’s Place hosts “A Night at the Oscar’s.” This being our largest event of the year, it is organized by an incredible group of community volunteers. Also, high school and college students volunteer in the summers and in our ASAP program to earn service hours. We also have college groups and local businesses who donate their time to perform services such as spreading mulch on the playground and painting/cleaning the interior of the building. Our Junior Council, which has two major events each year, is an excellent way for young professionals to get involved at Mitchell’s Place. All of these opportunities can be located on our website www.mitchells-place.com. And of course there’s always the opportunity to make monetary donations! This can also be done on our website and leads me to our biggest challenge: the raising of funds. In today’s non-profit world, so many organizations are competing for the same funds through local and national grants. Mitchell’s Place must articulate our uniqueness in ways that makes us shine above the other applicants!
Please describe the person in your life who had the most influence on your career.
Dr. Mike Melvin, former principal of Crestline Elementary School. Dr. Melvin is the person who saw leadership potential in my skills and encouraged me to seek my Administration Certification. I would not be in my position at Mitchell’s Place today if he had not encouraged me to pursue the certification status. Thanks Mike!!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
In the workplace, if you are making EVERYONE happy, you’re not doing a good job.
What advice would you give to others?
Always treat people the way you would like to be treated: the basic Golden Rule!
Favorite vacation destination?
My friend Elizabeth’s family condo at Navarre Beach, FL, is definitely my favorite destination. I am blessed with incredible friends and we go to the beach together as often as possible. Navarre is less crowded and allows for total quality time with friends. I love it!!
What is your favorite thing to do to relax?
I sometimes struggle with relaxing, as I can always find something that needs to be done. But I enjoying being on the beach watching the ocean and people watching!
Favorite thing to do on a Saturday night?
My perfect Saturday night is having my family at home to cook burgers or steaks and sit around the table talking about what’s going on in their lives. Going out to eat is something I enjoy doing after church on Sundays, but not so much at nighttime.
Favorite local restaurant?
Miss Myra’s BBQ!
What music are you listening to these days?
I have to admit that I don’t listen to a lot of music. I will ride all the way to the beach without turning on the radio even once! But if I do play music, I usually listen to the 70’s and 80’s stations or Sarah Simmons music that I have downloaded on my phone!
What books are you currently reading?
Once again I have to admit negligence. I read a lot of articles and books pertaining to autism, and I am not the best at leisure reading. But when I do pick up a book, it’s usually a Danielle Steele novel. I love reading and not having to totally concentrate to stay on task with the plot. No offense, Ms. Steele!
Do you have any personality quirks or irrational fears?
My irrational fear is dying on my birthday!! I don’t want my birth and death dates to be the same!
If your house was on fire what’s the one non-living thing you would grab?
My children’s baby books!!! And my picture albums!
Name three things you can’t live without (excluding friends, family and God!).
If I were to choose three things, I would have to say my car (or any car) to get from place to place, shelter and love! My car will drive me from my place of shelter to Mitchell’s Place where I find all the love that one person deserves! The children, families, and staff radiate love and it is contagious!!
Thanks for sharing, Sandy! To find out more about Mitchell’s Place visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/mitchellsplace.
And a big thanks to Beth Hontzas for today’s amazing photos!