Even as a young child, Sandra Alheit felt uncomfortable about the way people with special needs were often treated.
She specifically remembers a film about a child with autism who was isolated because of adults’ inability – and or even willingness – to understand the disorder. Sandra knew that was an all-too-real scenario for many children. She knew there was a better way.
“Every kid deserves a chance to learn,” Sandra said. “I knew these kids deserved to be treated humanely and with respect.”
Sandra has since dedicated her life to helping kids with behavioral and mental health challenges reach their full potential.
Over more than two decades, she’s held nearly ever role at PEP – classroom aide, teacher, case manager, among others. Today, she leads PEP Assist, the agency’s consulting arm that equips school districts with skills and strategies for serving children with difficulties regulating emotions, mental health challenges, autism and other special needs.
Sandra’s style – and her team’s – isn’t to go into a district, size up the situation and get out. It’s a partnership – one anchored in continued learning, coaching and respect.
“PEP Assist consultants are experts at guiding and facilitating the direction our teachers need to go,” said Gina Symsek, director of pupil services, Brecksville-Broadview Heights City School District. “They do it in a way that’s collaborative, so there’s buy-in from the teachers. The teachers see it more as a partnership.”
Like all of PEP, Sandra and her team believe in a true ecological approach when working with children with deep challenges. That means the solutions to their problems doesn’t sit squarely in one of corner of their lives such as the classroom. Family plays a role, too.
Sandra easily recalls the kids who have touched her over the years.
There’s the boy with autism who wouldn’t get out of his cab in the morning, so she sat next to the vehicle in the rain until he was ready.
There’s the young girl who despite the trauma in her own life – an incarcerated father and drug-addicted mother – tried the best she could at school every day.
“I love seeing that look in the students’ eyes when they succeed,” Sandra said. “That’s also true for the teachers. With our help, they’re able to see beyond the behavior and understand who the students really are.”