Turning a love of music into a career at Chileda

By Tina M
June 30th

In 2012, Chileda received a unique application; after all, it isn’t every day that someone applies for a position that doesn’t exist. The application came from Chelsea Steen, who proposed that Chileda add a Music Therapy program and that she re-establish it after years of absence.  The idea was met with open arms.

Chelsea majored in Music Therapy because of a long love of playing music and an interest in psychology that developed in high school.  While participating in practicums at Wartburg College, she experienced first hand the power of music on peoples’ lives.  Chelsea knew then that Music Therapy was what she wanted to pursue for her career.

What inspired Chelsea to bring Music Therapy to Chileda?

The college practicums that Chelsea found most rewarding were those involving children with autism, or children in treatment centers for emotional and behavioral challenges.  After graduation, Chelsea ran in to her former elementary school teacher whose daughter happened to teach at Chileda.  This led to a proposal for a Music Therapy program at Chileda.  Chelsea began her Chileda career by working as a Direct Support Professional to give her experience with the residential students.  In 2013, Music Therapy was introduced to the Residential Programming students and expanded in 2015 to include the Education department so that all students, Residential and Day School, could receive these services.

The Power of Music

Music is a unique human art form that activates a person’s entire brain when they actively engage in singing, playing an instrument, or moving rhythmically along with a song. Because of this, music can stimulate learning, evoke memories, and connect with emotions in a way that students can experience in the moment.

Purposeful music therapy interventions can help kids develop more appropriate:

  • Social Skills
  • Communication Skills
  • Executive Function Skills
  • Sensori-Motor Skills
  • Emotion Regulation Skills

A closer look at ways Music Therapy helps students at Chileda:

  • Children can practice making requests (verbal or picture) for instruments because they see something they really want to try. 
  • Through group instrument play experiences, students can use social skills of waiting for a peer, or play an instrument together.
  • In songwriting or improvised play on instruments, kids can work on back and forth exchanges and use nonverbal communication to interact with another person.
  • The act of singing is in itself a controlled breathing exercise. Singing with a slow, gentle rhythm can help students slow their heart rate and breathing to a calmer state.
  • Repeated phrases and patterns in music provide an expected structure that allows a student to have a predictable environment in which their brain can understand they are safe.
  • Music can also energize, through fast rhythms and dancing. By alternating between a fast drumming activity to singing a slow, relaxing song, our students can practice what it feels like to control their bodies when they are either energetic or upset.

Musical Moments to Remember

The best moments for Chelsea are when students learn to use music for themselves in purposeful ways. Examples of this include when they tell her they took out the house guitar and practiced their song, did a music mindfulness experience to help them calm, or made up a new musical game with the keyboard in the house. A few students over the years have become songwriters, and each week would bring Chelsea the new lyrics they wrote.  They asked her to add music to them and record it to share with others. One student would even have a melody in her head and said “play this”, (singing it to her), “when I sing this part of the song.” Watching student independence grow to a point where they no longer need help to create music is an amazing thing for Chelsea.

What Chelsea loves most about her job

“I love seeing the students’ response to music. When they can express themselves through a song either by writing their own, playing instruments in a communicative way, or by sharing the lyrics of a song they choose, it is very powerful. The two parts of my job that always just make me so happy are seeing the creativity of each individual, and being able to interact with them through music.”

Learn more about Music Therapy here: www.musictherapy.org.

A recent report was published recognizing Music Therapy as Evidence-Based Practice for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Check out ther report here: https://ncaep.fpg.unc.edu/sites/ncaep.fpg.unc.edu/files/imce/documents/EBP Report 2020.pdf

A Graduate of Chileda’s Residential Program

By Tina M
May 11th

Submitted by Cara Capodice, Lauren Brasington, and Alexa Jaggi  (students in the “Digital Content Writing, Management, and Experience Design” Spring 2019 class at UW-La Crosse)

Alex, a graduate of Chileda, learned vital skills while enrolled in their Residential Program.  These skills allowed him to go from a completely dependent and unpredictable boy to an independent and successful young man. After his time at Chileda, Alex continued his education by attending college and is now living independently and working full time.

“Chileda is honestly the reason he is where he is now,” said Alex’s mother, Susan.

At the age of 8, Alex was diagnosed with autism. When his behaviors escalated to a crisis level at home, Alex’s family knew they needed help. “He had no sense of consequences. This is the kid I had to chase down one time before he ran into a busy highway. [He] just had no fear.”

Deciding to forgo public education, Susan began searching for alternatives to Alex’s education, specifically looking into residential programs.

After touring various facilities, she found Chileda. “You can tell that real things are happening there.”

“There might be holes in the walls where a kid threw something at it – they were just a very real place… He needed to be someplace without that institutional feeling, where the staff works with the kids one-on-one or takes them out [into the community]. We needed a place like that,” said Susan. 

While Alex was adjusting to his new lifestyle at Chileda, Susan recalls an important milestone he overcame. “At first, Alex would have a full-on meltdown when it came to meal time; he only ate a few foods. Through his time at Chileda, not only did he get used to eating other things, but he also ended up being a person who loves to cook.”  Although it was a rough start for Alex, he eventually began to adjust to a more structured environment.

“Once he was able to overcome the rebellious stage, I think ultimately he found comfort because he knew what to expect.”

During his time at Chileda, Alex had the opportunity to take part in regular coursework at Aquinas High School where he could take advantage of “a school environment and have the ability to interact with other students, which was really good for him.” 

A very important part of Chileda’s curriculum also allowed Alex to grow into a more self-sufficient individual, learning life skills including self-care, budgeting, and cooking, things that Alex’s mom explains are lessons that should be included in all education systems. 

When asked about the kinds of opportunities Chileda provides for students, Susan said, “they would go out to eat, to movies, or sometimes shopping. They also had an outing in the summer, a camp that was specifically for kids like Alex. He really enjoyed being a part of that. For Halloween, Chileda partnered with the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse to go trick-or-treating in the dorms. Alex was also able to participate in various events like the Special Olympics. They really sought out a lot of opportunities.”  

As a parent of a child with autism, Susan never imagined her son would live anywhere but under her roof. 

Chileda equipped Alex with the tools and skills he needed to live independently, and they continue to provide support and share in Alex’s successes.

To encompass her feelings regarding Chileda, Susan said,

“I just think we are very, very lucky that Chileda exists and that we were able to find them.”  

If you were inspired by Alex’s story and want to learn more about the programs and services Chileda offers, please visit http://chileda.org/how-we-help/.

Visual Schedules are the Key to Success

By Tina M
April 27th

By Terri Gowey, MS, BCBA, LBA
Chief Operating Officer at Chileda

We have a simple solution for you to help increase independence in your child and eliminate a little stress in your life. Visual schedules will work wonders! They’re a way to list out daily events, activities or tasks.

These schedules help your child (and you!) know what is coming next, provide consistency and most importantly, show when preferred activities are occurring.

And if you’d like to decrease behaviors related to transitioning from one activity to the next, try placing preferred activities after less preferred activities. This will keep up motivation to complete the not so fun tasks to get to the ones that have your child smiling from ear to ear!

There are many different types of visual schedules. Here are a few examples of ones we use at Chileda.

examples of visual schedules

Making a schedule can be as easy as setting up a Word document using check boxes and pictures from the internet (no fancy icons required).

Putting this in an inexpensive 8×10 frame can make a morning or bedtime routine easy to follow and update with a Dry Erase marker.  It will take some time teaching your child how to use the schedule at first, but after some training you will see more independence.

We love using visuals at Chileda and not just for schedules. Alicia Zielke has created a Cloud Dough Recipe in honor of World Autism Awareness Month. Alicia works with Chileda and she’s a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant at Mayo.

Chileda employees assisting a student with pouring corn starch

Check out the Cloud Dough recipe here.

Let us know if it’s helpful for you. The visual recipe allows your child to easily follow the instructions and be involved with making a fun sensory activity. Enjoy!

Peace: A Mother’s Journey to Tranquility

By Tina M
January 13th

Submitted by Madeline Hunsader, Judy Lor, and Samantha Stroozas (students in the “Digital Content Writing, Management, and Experience Design” Spring 2019 class at UW-La Crosse)

Karen Myrah struggled to balance daily life with caring for her son, Cavin, who has autism.

Both faced obstacles and hard decision-making that many others in similar situations may relate to.

Chileda has impacted Karen and Cavin in many ways, but the overall sense of harmony Karen has received from working with the organization has been the most rewarding experience in her life. Karen described Chileda’s mission as, “adapting to what students need and focusing on the future.”

Karen felt like there was need for a change after difficult life events occurred at the Myrah household. Karen explained that tensions at home continued to rise, creating a stressful environment for the whole family, especially for Cavin. His stress intensified because of his difficulty expressing feelings in healthy ways.

The situation progressed to the point where it was potentially unsafe for the family to be around Cavin. After researching and trying multiple ways to care for her son by herself, Karen realized that she needed more help than she was able to offer. Since Cavin was already a day student at Chileda, Karen decided to put Cavin into the residential program.

This change was a hard decision for Karen to make.

As a parent, one may think they know their child’s needs the best; however, Karen explained that enrolling Cavin into Chileda has shown her, “this is what he needed at that time to make him be more independent. They focused on Cavin and his needs, whereas at home it was more the family that I was focused on.”

Karen explained Chileda offers more than just “services.” She emphasized “the students, the autism, or the behavior, or whatever, they’re so individualized. … They’re flexible, and they watch out for every single student.”

“They’ve taken a bad situation and just calmed him and gave him what he needed.”

Karen Myrah
student at Chileda smiling while walking outside

Chileda works to create the most comfortable environment for student success. Karen explained Chileda has helped map out where students go next, and how they will live after Chileda.

During a residential stay, Chileda encourages students to grow and develop by promoting interaction between their peers and the staff. The day school program provides a safe and therapeutic environment that addresses individualized education goals. Both programs offer high-quality educational programs with an emphasis on helping children learn the social and behavioral skills necessary to help them become more independent.

Cavin participated in Chileda’s day program for almost two years before participating in the residential program. Karen said, “as a residential student, they got him back to the way that he used to be.” Chileda encouraged Cavin to be healthy and kept him moving.

If you would like to learn more about how Chileda can help you, call us at (608) 782-6480 or contact us online at: http://chileda.org/contact/.

My Chileda Story – Carrie

By Tina M
November 19th

Submitted by Carrie McIntyre, Former Chileda Employee

Hello! My name is Carrie McIntyre and I was an employee and the substitute leisure arts teacher for awhile at Chileda from 2011-2012. Though my time was brief, because I moved to Minnesota, I just wanted to give a quick shout out to how Chileda impacted my life greatly!

image of woman playing guitarI received my undergraduate degree with a double major of Theater and Vocal Performance with a music minor. When I moved to Wisconsin from Seattle I was looking for a job and answered the one I found in the paper for Chileda. At that point in time I was a working musician and taught lessons to children but mostly neruo-typical children. I had never given adaptive lessons before or worked with any children on the spectrum. So I was a little nervous when starting. I immediately fell in love and realized I had a gift of using music to connect with those kiddos. It was such an amazing experience that when I moved to Minneapolis I became a certified ABA Behavioral Therapist which then prompted me to my next chapter where I’m at now. I’m currently a Graduate Student at Colorado State University receiving my masters in Music Therapy with a concentration in ASD and early childhood. I would have never imagined ten years ago I’d be here.

Chileda played a huge part in showing me my true path to go down and I just wanted to give a huge thank you to everyone involved at this amazing place! Thank you so much.

Are you interested in earning your undergraduate or graduate degree? Chileda recently partnered with Purdue University Global! As part of this partnership, all Chileda employees and their immediate family members (spouses, domestic partners, parents, siblings, and children) will be eligible for a 14% discount off published tuitions for graduate programs and certificates and a 20% discount off tuition for undergraduate programs at Purdue University Global, Inc. Visit www.PurdueGlobal.edu for available programs.

Would you like to join the Chileda team? Check out our Employment page for available positions. Help us change lives!


By Tina M
November 12th

Sibshops are presented by The Chileda Development and Learning Center in partnership with the Down Syndome Association of Wisconsin

What is a Sibshop?
A Sibshop is an opportunity for brothers and sisters (ages 7-12) of kids with special needs to come together and receive support from each other. Through activities, games and discussion, the youth receive support from their peers who may be experiencing similar feelings of having a sibling with special needs.

The Sibshop model uses many off beat games and activities interspersed with discussion and informational activities to provide siblings with information, support and a whole lot of fun!

*The Sibshop model takes a wellness approach. Although Sibshops may be therapeutic for some children, Sibshops are not considered therapy and should not replace any family or individual therapy already in place.

How are Sibshops run?
Sibshops are led by Chileda employees who are trained Sibshop facilitators. Volunteers assist with activities and provide a 1:2 adult to participant ratio. As often as possible, volunteers who have siblings with special needs are recruited to provide insight on what it is like to grow up with a sibling with special needs.

Upcoming Sibshops
December 14, 2019
January 25, 2020
March 7, 2020
April 18, 2020
May 30, 2020

Sibshops are held on Saturdays from 9:00 am to Noon at the Chileda Development and Learning Center (3716 Mormon Coulee Road, La Crosse)..
A fee of $10 covers the cost of a snack and materials for the event.

For registration information, please contact Karrie Zielke, MVR, MBA, The Director of Chileda Development and Learning Center.
karriez@chileda.org or 608.782.6408 ext. 368

Jenna pictured at Chileda

“As a kid, it was hard to explain to friends what it was like to have a sister with autism and how that would affect us when they would come over to play. Most kids my age didn’t quite understand what it was like. So for my brother and I, going to Sibshops were a great way to talk to other kids that could relate to us and that had stories of their own to share.”
-Jenna Cavey, Behavior Specialist & Sibshop Facilitator

Making a Difference: Drew and Donna Sullivan

By Tina M
October 29th

Submitted by Maria Dresen, Noelle Hausen and Kristin Hartung (students in the “Digital Content Writing, Management, and Experience Design” Spring 2019 class at UW-La Crosse)

Donor Spotlight: Drew and Donna Sullivan have been long-time supporters of Chileda. We are so grateful for their kindness and benevolence. They have made a significant impact to helping fulfill our mission of improving the quality of life for youth with cognitive challenges and extraordinary behavioral needs. Thank you, Drew and Donna! We are humbled by your generosity.

“Chileda is responsible for the difference.”

That’s what Drew and Donna Sullivan would say if you asked them about the impact Chileda has on their lives. Their story shows the importance of Chileda’s mission and community support.

Drew and Donna were introduced to Chileda when their grandson, Keegan, could no longer live at home with his family in Texas. Keegan was diagnosed with severe Autism Spectrum Disorder at a young age and became so violent toward his siblings, his parents could no longer care for him. This led to a desperate search for a facility that could help Keegan. To their delight, Donna and Drew stumbled upon the solution in their own backyard; Chileda became Keegan’s new home. 

The progress Keegan experienced at Chileda was one of the couple’s main motivations for donating.

For a period of time, Keegan was a resident at Chileda who needed constant care. Because of our services, he was able to move from a residential student to our day services program. In addition, he can now better control his emotions, use more words, follow clear instructions, and express if he is upset or needs anything. Without Chileda, Keegan would have been put on the waiting list in his home state, or placed in a psychiatric institute. Now, he has transitioned to an adult group home that his family is comfortable with where he can grow old. 

To support their grandson, Drew and Donna donated to Chileda in various ways. They gave a monetary donation directed toward a break room for staff members, a safe space where they can set aside the stress of their positions. This has a positive impact on the students as well, as the space allows the staff to be better equipped to provide the students with the highest quality care. Drew is highly involved within Chileda by serving on the Board of Directors. Donna and her certified pet therapy dog have provided pet therapy for both Chileda residents and staff. Donna and Drew continue to devote their time, effort and money to our organization because they have witnessed how much our services can improve a family’s quality of life.

Our devoted team carries out our mission to teach students the valuable skills needed to become active in the community and improve a child’s quality of life.

Drew and Donna confirmed the devotion of our team explaining that, “their mission to take care of children…they live it, they breathe it, they wear it.”

Our mission is not solely an assortment of written words, but rather is lived out every day by all team members.

In order for our organization to continue serving our students, we are in need of community support. Through previous donations, we built two additional accessible playground structures to address students’ varied needs. Having a variety of playground structures helps students make more progress physically, academically and emotionally. The equipment provides access for those with limited mobility, including wheelchairs, and promotes group play.

Currently, we are raising funds for a Snoezelen Room for our students, a multi-sensory environment that will allow them to regulate their sensory input. If you are interested in supporting our work, please check out our donation page at http://chileda.org/donate/.

Inside the Snoezelen Room

By Tina M
June 14th

At Chileda, whether in our school or in their houses, our students can struggle processing all the sensory information around them.

Sights, smells, sounds and touch, all can become overwhelming, compelling our students to seek a place to relax and regulate. While we have designated spaces for the students to relax, we don’t have a Multi-Sensory Environment to help them regulate, at least not in the way the Snoezelen Room will.

One item on our wish list for the room is a large bubble tube, but it’s not like any other bubble tube you may have seen. From floor to ceiling, changing colors and different shapes swim through the tube, creating a calming effect that also helps with visual perception. The tube itself, begging to be touched, sends vibratory sensations through the user as they make contact with it and returning tactile stimulation.

The bubble tube is just one of the many features of the room, but it is a cornerstone of what makes the Snoezelen Room so effective.

Outside of the Snoezelen Room, the world can sometimes be chaotic, but inside of it, we can control and adjust the sensory environment for the students, providing the opportunity to relax and regulate, to help the students be their most wonderful selves. We will need your help to make this a reality for our students at Chileda.

Want to find out more about Snoezelen rooms?

Check out these links for more information.

My Chileda Story – Nick

By Tina M
May 17th

Submitted by Nick Maczek

I am a stepfather to two children on very different ends of the Autism spectrum.

My stepdaughter is still able to live at home. Her brother, on the other hand, cannot.

I was fortunate enough to have the choice to be a part of this madness. My wife, however, was forced into this. It has been harder watching what the struggles have done to her than actually dealing with the behaviors and other headaches. Mom has had to make some very difficult decisions. I have been with her through them all, but they all had to be her own decisions as a mom.

I was there when we had to first put our boy in the behavior hospital.

I was there the second and third etc. I was there when she decided to try meditation. I have been there through countless hours of therapy. I was there when we made the move to an alternative school.

Those decisions were extremely hard on mom. She, however, made it through them like a trooper.

Then came the decision to put him in residential. That was tougher than all the other decisions combined. Fortunately, at that time, he was only an hour or so from home.

While he was there, we would visit him every weekend, but our taking him out was very limited.

He got kicked out of one school while there. He got to the point that we were called several times a month that he was sent to the ER, either from aggression toward others, or self-injury.

Then came the call that my wife feared was coming, we were being told the residential facility was no longer able to keep him. We were fortunate that they kept him until another placement was found. It took over six months and over 60 rejections. Not one place in Illinois would take him.

Then a miracle happened.

We were told that a place in La Crosse, Wisconsin was interested in meeting him. Mom was both overjoyed and distraught at the same time. We were glad there was someplace out there for him, but the idea of being 4 hours away was heartbreaking. This was going to mean far less visits, and a hotel room, and a very rough ride with his sister who doesn’t like long car rides.

We took a ride up for a tour. The first thing we saw, pulling up, was a child being restrained, then we saw another inside. You may think this would be discouraging, but we were thinking just the opposite. We could see that the children were not being harmed in any way. We also instantly thought this is a good sign, they are used to dealing with kids like our son.

We were highly impressed with the tour. We decided right then to give this a chance.

Chileda student swinging with his teacher
Zack at Chileda with his teacher, Jessa

Thank God we said yes to this little place called Chileda.

In a very short time they began getting him off of some of his medications. We began taking him on overnights in hotels. We were finally getting our sweet boy back. The four hour ride became very tolerable. The quality of our visits had increased tenfold.

The smiles on his mom’s face melted my heart.

Thank you so much, Chileda, for all you do for our boy and for all the kiddos there. Thank you for giving us our Zacky back.

Learn more about Chileda and our services:

Gaining Experience in Occupational Therapy While Working at Chileda

By Tina M
May 1st

Chileda employee at the UW-La Crosse Job Fair

Congratulations to Chileda employee, McKenna Keach, on your acceptance to the Master’s of Occupational Therapy program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

“While I was applying for graduate schools, it became clear to me there were many ways I have helped the children at Chileda grow, but even more ways in which they helped me grow as a future Occupational Therapist. Assisting students to overcome barriers in their lives, so they are able to participate in the activities they enjoy, has sparked an unwavering aspiration within me to help others in need through OT. I am very excited that I get to stay in La Crosse for graduate school, and continue to work with the awesome kiddos at Chileda who helped affirm this career path for me!” ~McKenna Keach

McKenna, all of us here at Chileda are proud of everything you have done for us and accomplished in your academic studies!

Information on the Occupational Therapy program at UWL:


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