Winter 1998

A Whole Lot of Hugging Going On
by Michelle Brescia ('91)

Human contact is an amazing tool for motivating . . ."

"Whiplash" is how Starrette E. Galanis ('75) describes her job at the Maryland School for the Blind.

"One moment I'm dealing with babies," she says, "developing ways to stimulate their residual vision, coordinating their eye movement and strengthening their sensory motor development. Then I ask myself, 'how do I switch gears and help this 21-year-old develop his work habits, move safely in his environment and learn how to care for himself?'"

Galanis' life on the school's 95-acre campus is a whirlwind of hectic 12-hour days, which, she says, she wouldn't trade for the world. "It's a real high to work with these students," she says.

As director of instruction, Galanis oversees curriculum support services and designs the curricula for the 187 students, ages 6 months to 21 years, who attend the residential school in Baltimore. Eighty-five percent of these students have multiple disabilities with varying degrees of severity in addition to being vision impaired. Galanis also coordinates the school's outreach program for 200-plus students across the state of Maryland whose school districts are unable to support an educational program for the severely disabled. The school is the state's only facility for the visually impaired.

Galanis, who graduated magna cum laude from JMU with a degree in education, received her master's in education from the University of Virginia and a doctorate in education from Johns Hopkins University. She also has an Advanced Professional Certificate for special education/elementary education and a Crisis Prevention Institute certificate and is continuing her postdoctoral studies in administration and supervision. She has been published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the Virginia State Board of Education.

"I love teaching and have always enjoyed school as a student, even in my adult life," Galanis says. "I make it a point to interact with the students every day. Human contact is an amazing tool for motivating, confidence building and increasing the comfort level of the students. At MSB, there's a whole lot of hugging going on," she adds.

Galanis has focused on special populations of all ages throughout her career, including children who are learning disabled, emotionally disturbed and physically handicapped. Her interest in working with the disabled originated during her work in a veterans hospital when she was a teen-ager.

"I was motivated by the challenge of helping the disabled veterans rise above their physical or mental handicap and lead active and productive lives," she says. "I am inspired by their strength and courage and wanted to play a part in helping handicapped children realize the same potential as their nondisabled peers."

Galanis believes the key to the school's success is communicating and collaborating on the curriculum with her day and evening staff of 115 teachers and instructional assistants, including occupational and physical therapists, speech and language specialists, nurses, and psychologists. The 1-3 ratio of teachers to students is necessary given the tremendous amount of attention and focus some of the more profoundly handicapped students require.

"It's a challenge to develop new ways to provide the appropriate instruction, delivery and resources for the children," she says. "You can't generalize what teaching methods will work for each student since they each have such unique needs."

Galanis encourages her staff members and students to embrace the spirit of continuous improvement and growth. She firmly believes that learning should be about asking questions, and she's energized when her colleagues engage in reflection and step outside the usual boundaries of education to explore new and creative methods of instruction.

"I am proud to say that I have the most phenomenal staff," says Galanis. They are the hardest working, highly committed, dedicated group in the world. They are incredibly caring, giving people," she says. Galanis and her staff rely on humor to get them through some of the tougher days, especially when some of the disabilities they see on a regular basis severely hamper a student's quality of life. "I love it when we lapse into silliness and hysterical laughter - it's such an awesome release," Galanis says.

Galanis usually has her cell phone in hand each morning and evening during her hour-long commute from her home in New Market, Md., to the school in Baltimore. Her staff often teases her for calling the office sometimes minutes after leaving the school with ideas that pop up during her drive time, which she calls "Beltway thoughts." "Given all the time I put in each day, my mind never really shuts down," she says.

Galanis and her husband, Rick, spend their rare free time traveling and caring for animals. The students at MSB often refer to Galanis as the "Animal Lady," since the walls of her office are covered with snakeskins and prints of lions, tigers and bears, reminiscent of her days as a keeper in a zoo's carnivores' house. She continues to volunteer with the animal rescue program in her community, and her house is always the first stop for children who have found a bird that fell out of its nest or a turtle with a cold. Hopefully, her two pet chinchillas don't get too jealous from sharing her attention.

Galanis' spirit of continuous giving and positive thinking benefits pets, staff and stu-dents alike. "We can do this!" is her daily motto.

"It's the little successes each day that are most rewarding," she says. "These kids work so hard to do things we take for granted - like brushing our teeth, getting dressed or completing a work task. They are the reason I look forward to going to work each day and are a true inspiration to us all."

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