Toni Van Laarhoven
Sarah Johnston Rodriguez
by Mark McGowan
Sixty-three NIU students preparing for careers as special education teachers have begun making two or three trips weekly to Indian Prairie School District 204 to participate in Project MY VOICE.
Thirty students ages 16 to 21 with developmental disabilities that “cover the whole gamut” are joining in the project, which empowers them through technology to express their own needs and desires about happy and self-sufficient adult lives.
NIU professors Toni Van Laarhoven and Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez, along with Traci Van Laarhoven-Myers, an Indian Prairie special education teacher, and Heather Johnson, a project associate, are directing the work and eventually will create a model and instructional guide for national dissemination. Several Indian Prairie teachers and speech and physical therapists also are involved in the three-year endeavor, funded by a $340,000 grant from the Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities.
Behind it all, however, is a woman named Steffanie.
“She is absolutely one of the coolest people I know,” says Van Laarhoven, an associate professor in the College of Education’s Department of Teaching and Learning.
But Steffanie is more than a cool person.
The 46-year-old woman with “pretty significant developmental disabilities” is the older sister of the Van Laarhovens and the inspiration for both of their careers. She also was the first unofficial participant in the MY VOICE project.
Van Laarhoven wanted to create “sort of a press kit” for Steffanie that “showed the big picture of her and who she is through different life domains.”
The multimedia presentation includes a PowerPoint full of pictures, videos and songs that represent things important to Steffanie. The PowerPoint begins with a picture of Steffanie set to the sounds of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” a favorite song by a favorite artist. Other slides with videos, pictures and music represent her likes, dislikes, needs and dreams for the future.
“I shot video of Steffanie at work, home, in the community and at a family gathering, and asked her a series of questions about what she wants or doesn’t want to do,” Van Laarhoven says. “Although she is nonverbal, she clearly expressed preferences, and we captured those using multimedia so that she can communicate what she likes to do and what she doesn’t like to do: ‘I don’t like to dry dishes anymore. Can I get a different job?’ ”
At a subsequent planning meeting, where Steffanie might typically sit and say nothing, she will instead use a computer, push a button and dramatically unveil her own opinions on her current life and her dreams for the future. Her family hopes this will result in a plan of action that will make it more likely for her to get the supports she needs to achieve her goals.
Decisions like those often are discussed and made only by parents, guardians and educators. The intent of Project MY VOICE is to include the young people in that conversation through the use of technology.
NIU’s students in TLSE 458 – “Vocational Preparation and Transition Planning For Adolescents With Disabilities” – are learning important lessons as they work with the young people.
“They’re asking ‘What is it that you’d like to do?’ and then developing multimedia to assist the students in telling other people. It’s something new for our pre-service teachers, and they’re doing a great job with it,” Van Laarhoven says.
“I really think our NIU students are enjoying this opportunity because they get to work with real-life students but they’re also doing something incredibly important,” she adds. “Transition planning is a real area of need. We need to know how to program for students beyond high school so they can be more successful after they graduate.”
Success is something Van Laarhoven and her sister know well.
After watching their mother’s outpouring of love, along with her blood, sweat and tears, to demand only the best for Steffanie, both Toni and Traci became special educators. Now, along with their mother, they’re also recognized guardians for their big sister.
The twins also have shared lead vocals and harmonies for 15 years in Go Figure, their rock band that also features Traci’s husband on lead guitar. The band’s repertoire of classic rock and ’80s hits spans the jukebox from the B-52s and Pat Benetar to Sheryl Crow and Pearl Jam.
Fans of live music can catch Go Figure at such popular suburban nightclubs as Quigley’s, Walter Payton’s Roundhouse and Synergy or at festivals such as Naperville’s Ribfest or the Sandwich Fair.
“I like the crowd. I like the energy,” Van Laarhoven says. “It’s kind of like teaching. You can make it fun.”
Rocking with a cover band on the weekends can’t pay the bills, of course.
Before coming to NIU in 2001, Van Laarhoven taught in Naperville and Roselle and later participated with an autism training team that allowed her to teach teachers and gave her a taste of teacher preparation and research. “I loved it. I got the biggest kick out of it,” she says.
Her migration into higher education soon began.
“I love the whole package,” she says. “I get to work with teachers, college students and kids while also doing research. What can be more fun than that?”