Meet Our Students

Meet Our Students

High School Student Al giving the welcome speech at the SEA 2016 Gala.

Al’s Story

My son, Al, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 22 months.  We immediately began in-home therapy through early intervention until he reached the age of 3.  He then entered the early childhood education program through our public school district.  During the school years of kindergarten through 2nd grade, he was in a general education classroom with an aide.  

Due to Al’s increasing behaviors, the district then placed Al in a self-contained classroom for 3rd, 4th, and the first semester of 5th grade.  Even in this multi-needs setting for students with special needs, the district informed me they could no longer meet Al’s needs.  That’s when we found Soaring Eagle Academy, and our lives were forever changed for the better. Al was finally in an environment where he felt like he belonged.  From the moment I toured Soaring Eagle, I felt so much love in the building and I knew Al would be accepted for the beautiful person that he is.  Al’s unique qualities are celebrated, and he is encouraged to be the best he can be every single day.  Al has been at Soaring Eagle for 5 years now, and he is a happy 16 year old boy who is thriving and achieving so much success with the help of his family at Soaring Eagle Academy.

Lisa Papadakos

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Dominique’s Story: SEA’S First Graduate

My daughter Dominique is a smart girl that has been exposed to DIR®/Floortime since the age of three. She has always presented with a complex profile evidenced in her over responsiveness to auditory and visual stimuli in her environment, difficulty comprehending others and communicating her needs and inability to make her body perform in the way she intended. This resulted in severe anxiety and inability to stay calm and regulated. These individual differences would cause her to become dysregulated and physically aggressive, often misunderstood and interpreted by others as negative behaviors that needed to be extinguished, and as a result, her behaviors escalated. She was rarely seen for her positive attributes or her significant learning challenges, just the aggressive behaviors.

After multiple failed school experiences and no school utilizing DIR® methods in Illinois, the decision was made by our district to provide a home program to meet her educational needs that would implement the DIR® philosophy and methods. My goal was to provide her with meaningful learning experiences at her level of development that would woo her back into the joy of learning while supporting her individual differences and supporting her emotionally as we encouraged her to use strategies for calming and regulation. She made amazing progress and her self-esteem and confidence began to grow. She was ready for a school that could embrace, understand, respect and support her individual differences – but there was no such school in the Midwest.

Our dreams became a reality when Soaring Eagle Academy opened in 2010 with 5 students and one elementary classroom. However, Dominique knew that she would have to wait for the “big kids” class to open as we grew. At the age of 19, Dominique’s future bloomed with the opening of our high school transition program in 2011. She was enrolled at SEA after being in homebound instruction for 9 years. Somehow knowing her day had come, she entered SEA joyfully, continuing to build on the foundation that DIR® Floortime provided her at home. Dominique and her SEA team embraced the challenge that most of her life’s learning would need to be condensed into her early 20’s, a time when others would have given up, thinking the window for learning had shut years ago. SEA staff understood her needs and empowered her to use strategies for calming and regulation, engagement, comprehension, communication and learning – all life skills preparing her for a bright future.

Today, Dominique is a happy, engaging 24-year-old young lady. And, as co-founder and executive director, I couldn’t be more proud to share that in January 2014, she became the first Soaring Eagle Academy graduate! Dominique graduated from SEA feeling competent and confident to accomplish the next steps in her journey. Perhaps the most meaningful tools that Dominique takes with her are the strategies she has learned to be calm and regulated, allowing her to be comfortable and happy in her own body. To see that she has achieved that life-long skill, and so much more, far exceeds my very high expectations for her in our school.

Dominique has genuine friends in the SEA staff and her fellow students because interaction and relationships are the foundation of the DIR® model and SEA’s philosophy. She has gained the necessary skills and with the expertise, direction and support of SEA staff, she has successfully transitioned into the “real world.”  Her time is now spent expanding leisure and recreation, interacting socially with new friends and engaging in volunteer opportunities in the community. These opportunities may lead to supported employment, driven by her desire to connect with and help others, that will pave a path for a meaningful and balanced lifestyle. Dominique is a true success story. We will be forever grateful to “eagle school” for empowering Dominique to SOAR!

Deanna Tyrpak

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Jack’s Story

When our son Jack was diagnosed with Autism, it hit us like a ton of bricks and took my breath away. Our sweet, innocent, beautiful and perfect 18-month-old baby boy was not so perfect after all – at least that’s what the doctor told us.

Speech, occupational and developmental therapists came to our house every day. They would put Jack in his high chair and train him to put beads on a string, pegs into holes and puzzles pieces into the appropriate slots. Jack hated these therapy sessions. It was so painful to watch Jack be so unhappy. Although his therapists tried to encourage us, saying his reactions were “normal” and “things would get better,” it simply felt wrong.

Then we met an angel who led us to a revolutionary new school, Soaring Eagle Academy. SEA changed everything by showing us the world of DIR®/Floortime. Staff taught us to play and have fun with Jack, and that being connected with him was more important than improving his fine motor skills. At first, this concept felt weird; but eventually, it all started to make sense. Therapy and learning needed to be meaningful to Jack.

SEA Staff encouraged us to be patient and have faith in the DIR® methodology, which is designed to help our son grow rather than impress our family and friends with achievements that meant nothing to Jack. Slowly, day by day and year by year, our faith has been rewarded. We’ve watched Jack come out of his shell and begin communicating with those around him.

This past May, Jack, who is currently non-verbal, typed his first sentence using an augmentative communication device. As he became able to share his thoughts and feelings, we learned that our boy is so incredibly smart! In his earliest communications, Jack told his teaching assistant that he felt he could do more challenging work. She listened. Our son wanted to learn, and Soaring Eagle Academy quickly gave him that opportunity – and so much more!

Jack is already at grade level for mathematics, and we are working on moving him up for literacy. He recently did a social studies project researching Autism. Our son. Did research. On Autism!

The Autism cloud Jack has been in for eleven years is dissipating, and he’s slowly coming back to us. His thoughts and messages have continued, and Jack is getting better and better at telling us what is in that brilliant little brain and kind heart of his.

We will be forever grateful to Soaring Eagle Academy for giving Jack and our family our life back.

Tom and Molly Clark 

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Mick’s Story

Mick has been at Soaring Eagle for almost two years, and it has been so gratifying to witness the relationships he has developed with his teachers, therapists and peers. He has a true trust with each of the staff members who works with him. He feels confident and supported at school, which enables him to progress academically and to participate enthusiastically and meaningfully in activities with his peers. He looks forward to school each day, and I feel confident and happy to send him.

Libby Hafkey


Jackson’s Story

Our son Jackson is a delightful 10-year-old boy who retreated into the world of Autism around 2 years of age. As his parents, we were ready and willing to do anything to help pull him back out. With lots of prayers and lots of work, Jackson was becoming healthier, more engaged and more a part of the world around him. However this was not taking place in his therapy sessions. After four years of speech therapy, he was saying less and less and shutting down in his sessions. If Jackson was able to say the words they were asking him to, he would have. There is no doubt that he wanted to communicate, but saying the words was very hard for him and sometimes they just didn’t come. Therapy seemed to just discourage him, and we realized we needed a change. Through advice of friends we found a DIR®/Floortime speech therapist named Michele Ricamato. After a few months of DIR®/Floortime therapy with Michele, not only was he talking more, his cognition was greatly increasing, and we could see that his confidence was beginning to return.

When we met Michele she was in the process of starting Soaring Eagle Academy (“SEA”). I knew that it would be a great fit for Jackson. DIR®/Floortime therapy is such a respectful, loving and effective way of teaching children with developmental delays. Jackson was privileged to be among the first students to enroll at SEA. He has now been there for four years, and it has been nothing short of remarkable. The outstanding staff is able to work with and challenge Jackson on his best days and graciously support him through his worst days.

This past year has been the most dramatic for Jackson. He started the year trying a third augmentative speaking device. He had grown to pretty much detest using his past two devices, and we were hoping that maybe this one might interest him. Giving Jackson a more complex form of communication was our highest goal for him for several years. Our prayers were answered as he started using the new device, and in short order, went from communicating one word answers to long sentences and paragraphs sharing jokes, feelings, hurts and wisdom. It’s been a dream come true to communicate with him at such a level relationally, but also educationally. Last year it was hard to even test him. This year, he is testing out at the 5th grade level. For years you could just see so much going on in his eyes, but now we are getting to hear it through the device.

Jackson’s courage to try yet another method to communicate and to open himself up after eight years of near silence would never have happened without the unwavering and compassionate support and encouragement of the SEA staff. We are so grateful for their role in Jackson’s life. Our tragic experience with Autism has turned into an amazing adventure.

Melyssa and Jason Bloom

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Nate’s Story – Former Elementary Student Transitioned Back to Home School District

I wanted to send you an email and touch base about Nate. Today is his 10th birthday, and I was reflecting on how well he is doing and how much he has progressed. I wanted to thank everyone at SEA so much for everything you did to get him to the place he is now. Nate got all A’s and B’s last semester in his general education classes. He is in pull out for language arts, but in class for the other subjects. He plays trumpet in the school band and last December had two parts in the musical Shrek through the park district. We still have work to do, but I know that he would not be where he is now if it wasn’t for Soaring Eagle. Thank you for helping Nate gain the confidence that he needed and a safe place to learn for the years he was there.

Jill, Parent of Former SEA Elementary Student

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