headshots of Tiffany Schroeer and Chelsey Hendrickx, Director and Program Coordinator for Empowering Kids

Empowering Kids: Creating Spaces of Belonging

written by Melissa Hendrickx

In recognition of Autism Awareness Month, AmazeWorks is proud to highlight Empowering Kids, a non-profit organization located in Perham, MN that provides support and resources to individuals with autism and their families. AmazeWorks business and operations director Melissa Hendrickx had the opportunity to talk with Empowering Kids director Tiffany Schroeer and program coordinator Chelsey Hendrickx about the important work they are doing to create belonging and provide crucial resources in a rural part of the state.

Both Tiffany and Chelsey began their professional careers as educators, Tiffany having worked in special education, and Chelsey as a kindergarten teacher. Tiffany joined Empowering Kids in the summer of 2017. As an organization built around supporting neurodivergent kids, Tiffany notes that there was an emphasis on letting “individuals express themselves as they are, giving them the tools that work for them.” When Chelsey joined the team a year later, she was soon presented with the opportunity to begin a preschool. What excited her about the opportunity was the desire to look beyond the conventional modes of teaching, because she had learned that “standard and typical does not meet the needs of most kids.”

The choice was to begin a Montessori preschool. This has been their pilot year, and they are currently serving both children who receive services from Empowering Kids and children from the local community. This has created an environment where all the kids can learn from each other and there is greater flexibility in allowing children to be the drivers of their learning.

As advocates for neurodivergent individuals, Tiffany explained that “neurodiversity is a reframe of how we want to view” certain behaviors. She stressed that parents and educators should focus on the “why” behind a child’s behavior and encouraged a collaborative process whenever possible to support the child naming their own needs. She also stated the importance of seeking out resources by and for the neurodivergent population. For Chelsey, who primarily works with children ages 3-6, she stressed the need for educators to involve parents, because “they are the experts on their children.” For teachers in training, Chelsey wished that “schools and universities would be more willing to intersect degrees,” as she has noticed a major difference in how educators view education versus how mental health professionals view it. Bridging this gap, she believes, would better prepare teachers for working with neurodivergent students.

Both Tiffany and Chelsey find great joy in their work. Chelsey commented on the moments when the children in her classroom recognized the different needs of their peers as normal and showed great empathy towards one another. She also noted the impact of providing these services in a rural area. Several parents travel a significant distance to receive support from Empowering Kids and have often asked, “what would we have done if this wasn’t in Perham?” Tiffany recognized the unique benefits of creating a space that allows people the freedom to be themselves. “We provide a service so that individuals can be authentically who they are, and that opens up a space for their providers to be authentically who they are.”

Ultimately, the work that the Empowering Kids staff does creates a sense of community for children and families who may not have felt that before. As one parent shared with Tiffany, her son “has finally found a place where he feels like he belongs.” Chelsey emphasized that this sense of community extends to teachers as well. “It feels good to know that you’re going to a place where you’re fully accepted.”

To learn more about Empowering Kids and to further support their work, you can visit their website: https://www.empoweringkidsperham.org/.

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