As Santa Claus arrived at the Growing Minds Center Dec. 21, the faces of children lit up, the energy increased and wishes came tumbling out.
Some games for one student, a doll for another and a happy family and good holiday for another spilled out of the students, aged six to 18, who call the Growing Minds Center for children with autism and related disabilities their school.
The center has steadily grown in the six years since owner and operator Christine Hermsdorfer began to offer individual tutoring to children with autism.
She started out with five students. In two years, Hermsdorfer established a full-time school and the current enrollment is 11 full-time students and seven children who came after public school.
“I never planned on this kind of growth,” Hermsdorfer said. “I never planned on having a school. It just started as tutoring, but the need is there.”
Hermsdorfer uses the concepts behind Applied Behavior Analysis to both assess each student’s needs – assessing language and functional skills – and also crafting a curriculum for each student.
The school is located on Commerce Park next to Sherwin Williams in the old Emerson Heating and Cooling building.
The new space – the school’s original site was the fellowship hall at Long Avenue Baptist Church – includes a full kitchen and also several rooms that allow Hermsdorfer and her faculty, she has four Florida State University grad students from the Panama City campus as well as one teacher also on staff, to provide the individual care and education that some students with autism require.
“They have been a big help,” Hermsdorfer said of the FSU students.
Students come from Howard Creek to St. Joe Beach and transportation for most students is provided by Gulf County Transportation.
The students bring to the school state-funded McKay Scholarships, created more than a decade ago to assist parents of children with learning disabilities greater choice and flexibility for educating their child.
At Growing Minds, lessons focus on core subjects such as reading and math, but what is folded in, on an individual basis, are basic life skills. For example, a math lesson may entail understanding a cash transaction, making and receiving change.
“The key is patience and having a sense of humor,” Hermsdorfer said. “You have to have a sense of humor. You have to be creative to get the kids to do what you want and what they need.
“I really enjoy it. Next year I will add three more students.”
This means Santa will need all the knee strength he can muster when he drops by next year.