When Gina Patalano stepped into the classroom at Developmental Disabilities Institute on her first day of work, she marveled that everything seemed so small.
The top of a bookshelf she once stood on her tippy toes to reach was surprisingly a foot shorter than she is now. And she could pick up, with one hand, the blue plastic chairs she sat on as a prekindergartner at the school in Ronkonkoma.
“Everything is just so tiny now,” she said.
This summer, Patalano, 20, returned to DDI to work as an early childhood classroom aide. She had attended the early-intervention school from the time she was 1½ until she was 5 years old because her speech was delayed.
Now an incoming junior at Adelphi University who’s made Dean’s List four times, Patalano is studying social work and planning a career at the school she credits for her own success.
The Smithtown resident said she knew she wanted to work with children. And after spending six weeks with 10 3- to 5-year-olds, Gina said she’s convinced she wants to work with young children with disabilities.
“I know I can make a difference in their lives,” she said.
Gina Patalano was a year old when her mother, Lori Patalano, now 60, noticed signs of delays in her daughter’s speech development. Having raised two sons, who were 10 and 15 when Gina was born, Lori said she knew what milestones to look for in her only daughter.
“She had no speech at all, just little sounds here and there, but really no language,” Lori said. “I knew something didn’t seem right.”
After an examination to rule out neurological deficiencies, a pediatrician suggested the 18-month-old be evaluated for therapeutic services. What followed were visits from teachers and speech therapists, all of whom recommended Gina would benefit from a school setting, surrounded by other children.
For a mother who would wait until well after her daughter’s third birthday to hear her daughter say “Mommy,” Lori was desperate. “Of course, if they told me I should stand on my hands, I would have,” she said.
In Suffolk County, 1,404 children up to 3 years old were served by the Early Intervention Program in 2016-17, according to the state Department of Health. The preschool program in Suffolk provided special education services to 3,235 children between ages of 3 and 5 between October 2016 and October 2017, according to the state Education Department.
To qualify for an intervention program, families with children who may be in need complete a series of steps to obtain no-cost services from the state. After referral, a state evaluator examines the child. Then the state Department of Health (for children 2 and younger) or the state Education Department (for 3- to 5-year-olds) reviews the evaluation to determine individual needs. Services range from one-on-one at-home therapy to group sessions.
DDI, which has centers in Ronkonkoma, Medford and Huntington that serve about 500 students, is among dozens of approved special education schools on Long Island. Most of its classrooms are equipped with bright furniture, train sets and color-coded carpets — all of which help to stimulate children, especially those who learn visually.
The classrooms are just a little different from the days Gina attended, and carnival — a fun-filled day of coloring and tattoo artistry — is now indoors, she said with a chuckle about helping children the same way someone helped her as a young child. The addition of iPads in classrooms came after Gina’s graduation as a supplement to the school’s digital cameras and desktops.
By the time Gina "graduated" from institute at age 5, she needed no further special ed services. That milestone brought tears of joy to her mother, who had heard Gina utter her first words just a year and a half earlier.
After attending DDI, Gina went to Smithtown schools — from Dogwood Elementary School up through Smithtown High School East, from which she graduated in 2016.
“I remember as a high school student she asked if she could shadow some different professionals around,” said Meryl Halfon, associate director at DDI, who has worked for the nonprofit for more than two decades. “I can see how much she valued her experience here.”
While at Adelphi, Gina has received several scholarships, including the Becky Burrows Memorial Scholarship, and she’s a member of the Phi Mu Sorority.
Experts say that although individual results can vary broadly, early intervention services are invaluable and can help transition children, many like Gina, into the elementary school environment.
“The process, for many, is amazing and there are tremendous results from intervening at a very young age,” said Audra Cerruto, a licensed psychologist and special education teacher who recently became an associate dean at Molloy College. She noted that family involvement is key in the process.
The Patalano family, in particular, has made deep connections to the institute. Lori Patalano was so active at institute — from being a “class mom” to creating a library with the help of another mother — that the former nurse was offered a job.
“They told me to try it out for two weeks, and I could leave if I didn't like it,” Lori said, adding that she has worked there for 15 years.
As for the budding social worker who’s excited to give back, Gina said she is looking forward to creating individualized educational plans for students when she graduates.
"I think there is so much I can do to change a child’s life — whether it’s giving them a smile or a 'good morning,' to even showing them how to take turns," Gina said.