Jennifer Heath, interim administrator at Barker Woods Enrichment Center in Michigan City, began her work helping children with special needs after she and her husband Jerry’s lives crossed paths with the center.
Heath, who grew up in South Bend, Skokie, and then Michigan City, attended Indiana State and PNC and studied marketing, but she says that career vision changed when she had her first child. “I came into a totally different area than what I intended, but that all changed when I had my oldest daughter, Libby, who was born with Down Syndrome,” says Heath. “I studied about Down Syndrome, I learned about it and I became involved with Barker Woods Enrichment Center. I served on their board for eight years before I began working there,” Heath says.
Barker Woods Enrichment Center provides childcare and preschool services for children of all abilities, specializing in serving children with special needs. They also provide pediatric occupational and speech therapy services for children. The facility was started by a group of parents whose children were not welcomed in the public school system during the 1950s.
Barker Woods Enrichment Center
3200 South Cleveland Avenue, Michigan City
“At Barker Woods I help them network with other agencies in the community, I do human resource and personnel work, grant writing, and I’m responsible for the overall performance of the center. Barker Woods has been in existence for over 60 years and it was originally for children with special needs. Over time, as the laws changed, we’ve changed as well. We accept typically developing kids as well as children with special needs and integrate them into the classroom, so its’ a fully inclusive model. For the typical kids it broadens their acceptance of others, and it’s been amazing to me to see what this place can do to teach kids so they don’t see there’s anything different and it’s not a big deal. For kids with special needs it challenges them for social appropriateness and challenges them to keep up with their peers. To see what these kids can do is incredible.
“It’s definitely a labor of love. It’s my honor to be here every day. I do as much as I can to keep it going,” says Heath.
But Heath’s work in the community extends far beyond the walls of Barker Woods. “I realized as my daughter got older there were fewer activities for her to be involved in. We got involved in the Challenger League for baseball in Chesterton and I thought we could do that here in Michigan City,” she says. Challenger League a baseball league that provides physically and developmentally challenged children, teens, and young adults an opportunity to play baseball. The league stresses the basics of ball with the primary purpose of having fun, exercise for each player, and the experience of being part of a team regardless of skill level or ability.
“So a friend of mine and I started the first Challenger League in LaPorte County. We got together with our local YMCA and with their help started the whole league and it really worked out to have another not-for-profit involved. We sought donations, bought uniforms, bought equipment, and our first year we had 30 kids and we’re in our eighth year now,” Heath says.
In addition to baseball, Heath’s efforts have brought in more sporting opportunities for special needs children and their families. “We always envisioned more than just baseball. We tried a soccer league here and it didn’t get off the ground because we only had interest from four or five kids, but we worked with the guys in Duneland to get theirs up and running. They’ve done a fantastic job. We started a bowling league that doesn’t compete with Special Olympics, but it’s a nice primer or alternative. It’s great because their siblings can participate too and the whole family can play and it’s comfortable for everyone. Between siblings and special needs we have about 35-40 kids easily in our bowling league and it’s fantastic. We’ve also been in talks with Pop Warner about starting a challenger football team which would be the first in the area,” she says.
For Heath, finding new ways to bring opportunities to children with special needs, as well as extending the opportunities that already exist is her life calling. “It’s a labor of love because the kids need to feel that they are involved in their community. It gives them an incredible sense of ability, not just disability,” Heath says.