Alma’s Stepping Stone School for Exceptional Children celebrates 50 years of service

Toni Ward (left), executive director, reacts after receiving a scrapbook from colleagues Thursday at a 50th anniversary celebration of The Stepping Stone School in Alma. Stepping Stone provides services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. Ward was also honored at the event as one of the service providers original staff members. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for today's photo gallery.
(River Valley Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)
Toni Ward (left), executive director, reacts after receiving a scrapbook from colleagues Thursday at a 50th anniversary celebration of The Stepping Stone School in Alma. Stepping Stone provides services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. Ward was also honored at the event as one of the service providers original staff members. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for today's photo gallery. (River Valley Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)


ALMA -- Crawford County came together last week to acknowledge how a local organization has helped people with special or medical needs over the past five decades.

The Stepping Stone School for Exceptional Children in Alma celebrated the 50-year anniversary of its organization Thursday. The nonprofit group's website states it provides a range of services for children and adults diagnosed with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities, as well as their families.

Toni Ward, Stepping Stone's executive director, was the original employee the group's founding board hired when the school was started in 1972 as the Crawford County Special Services Center. Ward said as lead teacher/director she -- along with a teacher's aide she had hired -- initially worked with six children. She estimated the organization now services 400-425 children and adults through its various programs.

Ward said she believes Stepping Stone has made a significant impact on "countless children and adults," along with the level of awareness and importance of services to people with special and medical needs in the community.

Theresa White, director of development/marketing for Stepping Stone, said parents 50 years ago who had children born with Down syndrome or autism, for example, didn't have the care options available now.

One of Stepping Stone's activities is providing early intervention day treatment services for children ages six months to five years through its therapeutic preschool program. Ward said the main purpose is to prepare the children to go to public school, with children whose educational training deficits are identified early being better prepared than those whose deficits are identified later.

"Research shows that a child that's 12 months old, they're probably functioning at about a nine-month level, which isn't that large a span," Ward said. "But the longer they go each year that they are older and they don't have those intervention services, then that gap gets wider and wider, so when they go to public school at age five, typically they're functioning at about a two-and-a-half to three-year-old level."

Stepping Stone's therapeutic preschool program facilitates educational training, speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral health services and family case management and training, according to the organization's website.

Ward said Stepping Stone's vocational division, Jobs Plus, is comprised of two parts for adults with developmental disabilities: an adult development center and a sheltered workshop and recycling center.

"We really started that program back in the early '90s because we were seeing individuals transition now in public school and we felt like that everybody needs something to look forward to, everybody needs a purpose, and those individuals, that they might not be eligible for competitive employment, but they needed to be involved in some structure and ongoing training and learning," Ward said.

The adult development center focuses on things such as daily living and pre-vocational skills, basic academics, socialization and recreation, according to Ward. Stepping Stone brings in contract work from different industries for adults in the workshop and recycling center, who also pick up recyclable paper and cardboard throughout the community.

Stepping Stone also operates Cedar Ridge, a 10-bed, 24-hour intermediate care facility for adults with developmental disabilities, Ward said. Other services the organization offers are an infant care program, a Medicaid waiver program and, on a quarterly basis, an outreach clinic in partnership with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, among others, according to the website.

Ward said Stepping Stone postponed celebrating its 50-year anniversary from 2022 due to the covid-19 pandemic.

Sara Milam, the mother of a Stepping Stone graduate with cerebral palsy, was one of many people who spoke at Thursday's ceremony. Milam said her son, Greyson Keese, was two-and-a-half years old and could scarcely walk, talk or do other things when they became part of the organization in January 2016. Keese is now nine-years-old and doing well in the third grade at a school in Texas, something Milam attributed to his four years with Stepping Stone.

"Now, he goes to gymnastics every Tuesday with neurotypical kids," Milam said. "He greets them with, 'Hey guys, how are you? I'm here,' and he's ready to play and socialize. He participates in Miracle League. He does softball, he does basketball, flag football, soccer. He loves it. He's thriving."

"He won an academic award last year, and one of my proudest moments for him was when he won a communication award because he struggled so much to talk and tell us what was in his mind."

Alma Mayor Jim Fincher said Thursday that Stepping Stone is a model to other organizations trying to do similar things. He presented Ward a key to the city for her 50 years of service, dedication and friendship to the children and families of Alma and Arkansas.

Crawford County Judge Chris Keith read a proclamation at the ceremony declaring Thursday as "Stepping Stone School for Exceptional Children Day."

Representatives of U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Rogers, and 3rd District Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, read letters expressing support for Stepping Stone from their respective officials.

  photo  Toni Ward (left), executive director, reacts after receiving a scrapbook from colleagues, Thursday, April 27, 2023, at a 50th anniversary celebration of The Stepping Stone School in Alma. Stepping Stone provides services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. Ward was also honored at the event as one of the service providers original staff members. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for today's photo gallery. (River Valley Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)
 
 
  photo  Guests visit, Thursday, April 27, 2023, at a 50th anniversary celebration of The Stepping Stone School in Alma. Stepping Stone provides services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. Executive Director Toni Ward was also honored at the event as one of the service providers original staff members. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for today's photo gallery. (River Valley Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)
 
 
  photo  Guests visit Thursday at a 50th anniversary celebration of The Stepping Stone School in Alma. Stepping Stone provides services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. Executive Director Toni Ward was also honored at the event as one of the service providers original staff members. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for today's photo gallery. (River Valley Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)

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Graduation Rate

About 85% of the children who transition from the Stepping Stone School for Exceptional Childrens therapeutic preschool program to public school do so without needing further special services.

Source: Theresa White, director of development/marketing for Stepping Stone