By: Jen Russon
Staff at Abi’s Place offers anyone who steps inside a friendly smile, but behind the upbeat greeting is an all too pervasive fear their doors might be closing soon.
The school, which serves disabled students age 4-21, who attend from all over the county, notified its families on July 3, that low enrollment and budget cuts may mean Abi’s Place will go dark, just as other schools welcome children back in August.
For Michelle Van Niekerk-Miller, the resident occupational therapist at Abi’s Place, the prospect of closing fills her with sadness and fear.
“Where are they going to go?” she asks, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. “A transition like this could affect them medically.”
Van Niekerk-Miller is intimately familiar with the unique struggles of her students. In April, she made personal visits to one of their homes, to assist after a spinal fusion surgery rendered a wheelchair-bound student even less ambulatory.
Van Niekerk-Miller likes to introduce that student, 18-year-old Melissa Montgomery, to people who come into Abi’s Place curious about what its therapy services and environment can do for its kids.
In some respects, Melissa seems like an ordinary teenager. Her therapists light up when they discuss her love of country music, and making art; however, the truth of the matter is, her congenital disabilities make it next to impossible for Melissa to attend a typical public school.
“Our approach with a child like this is to enrich them and socialize them. Children like Melissa can’t spend hours in a wheelchair, no they can’t. We have an up/down scheduling program here where they’re getting floor, and playtime, a sensory room,” explained Van Niekerk-Miller.
Due to HIPPA, the occupational therapist is unable to discuss Melissa’s issues at length; however, the teen’s mother, Dina Montgomery is excited to talk about the gains her daughter has made at Abi’s Place and everything her family has personally sacrificed to keep her enrolled.
“When you have a typically developing child, and they learn to clap that doesn’t seem like anything, but for a child like Melissa, it’s a huge deal. I don’t know what we would have done without our Abi’s Place family,” said the mother of three.
Montgomery’s family consists of husband, Jim and two other children, a son, Jake, age 14 and oldest child, Jessica, who is 27. They have lived in Margate for decades.
Commuting to Coral Springs for Melissa’s care is quick, but the idea of picking her up at 3 p.m., close to the time her brother Jake’s dismissal is a challenge. The family succeeded in enrolling Jake at a nearby school to ensure more comfortable pick-ups.
“We were just celebrating getting Jake into Coral Glades High School when I got the email. I know a small school closing is not the end of the world, but it felt like it to us,” said Montgomery, describing the notice parents received from Abi’s Place founder and treasurer, Danielle Zimmerman.
In 1999, Zimmerman founded the non-profit because of her special-needs child, Abigail, now 20 years old, and living at home. The education tailored for Abi and her peers ensures a ratio of student/teacher that is never greater than three to one.
At Abi’s Place, parents like Montgomery have always been encouraged to collaborate with staff.
“I think we were all in our own little bubble, and just not realizing that the school was in financial trouble,” said Montgomery, who, along with about eight other Abi’s Place families, met in an emergency meeting to try to save the school last Tuesday.
A GoFundMe was created to reach a goal of $150k, so if the school fails to get the three additional students it needs for minimum enrollment, can meet its steep operational costs.
When Van Niekerk-Miller gives a tour of the cheerful, specially-equipped, and spotless rooms at Abi’s Place, the reasons for high cost are apparent. The occupational therapist said they currently have 11 students and need 14 minimum; 16 to run ideally.
During the tour, Van Niekerk-Miller points to a giving tree on the wall, denoting how many people have made donations to Abi’s Place over the years. Standing before a tree, with the names of givers on gold plates, she gets emotional at how the top bough is filled in with decade-old donations. The golden leaves beneath that are blank.
“I took an oath as an occupational therapist to advocate for the special needs child, to be their voice,” said a tearful Van Niekerk-Miller. “Fundraising is a big part of our Board, and we need new board members as well as donations. We must make sure these kids have someplace to go.”
If you would like to make a donation to Abi’s Place or call for more information about becoming a board member, contact Nicole Javier, office manager at 954-753-4441. You can donate online and mail a tax-deductible check to 1710 North University Drive. Or donate through GoFundMe.