To celebrate its 60th anniversary, the Cantalician Center for Learning will be sharing stories told by influential people in its history. The feature stories will highlight 60 years of excellence by taking an in-depth look at how Cantalician Center was formed, who was instrumental in helping it thrive, what services and programs were offered over the years and what's in store for the future...
Claudia Verostko-Sweeney or Miss Claudia as her students called her, started teaching at Cantalician Center for Learning in 1968 and worked at the organization until retirement in 2014. Miss Claudia was the longest employed teacher in Cantalician Center history to this day. She was only 19-years-old when she began teaching students between the ages of 13 to 21 at the first location at 3233 Main Street in Buffalo.
Miss Claudia was directed to Cantalician Center by the Felician Sisters. They knew Miss Claudia was interested in working with children with developmental disabilities and felt Cantalician Center would be a great fit for her. Miss Claudia said when she first started out, teachers didn't need a teaching degree. She began teaching with an associate's degree from Villa Maria College and later earned her bachelor and master degrees from Buffalo State College.
"[When] I began teaching, I had a big class of 18 with no assistant and very few ancillary services. The faculty was made up of people who had a desire to do it. Parents helped out in the classroom, they were servers in the cafeteria, and they prepped the food. Back then, a lot of mothers didn't work so there were shifts of mothers and fathers who came in and worked at the school on a daily basis," said Miss Claudia.
The parents were very involved in their children's education. Miss Claudia recalls monthly meetings at the Main Street site where parents would meet one-on-one with their child's teacher to discuss goals for the month and then they would fill the auditorium to hear speakers that would give them information on additional support.
The first ancillary services offered at Cantalician Center were speech and physical education. Miss Claudia said the classroom teacher taught everything outside of that. When she first started working at Cantalician Center the agency served children with developmental disabilities ages 5 to 21-years-old. It wasn't until 1977 that the agency began working with infants and then years later began serving ages 21 and over.
Miss Claudia said the biggest change in education was when New York State became more involved. This is when class sizes at Cantalician Center decreased and more staff was hired to help out in classrooms. She noticed a big shift in technology after that. She went from only handwriting goals and expectations in communication notebooks to using many different modes of communication, from the telephone to fax machine and now email.
"We changed with the times, but for myself I was older, so technology didn't come easy for me. Sometimes it was quicker and easier for me to hand write my information for parents. I had a lot of younger teachers help me when we first started doing IEP documentation online, because I really wasn't computer savvy," said Miss Claudia.
Miss Claudia's fondest memories are of her time at the Main Street campus. She loved the trees that once stood behind the big red-brick building that gave the students shade during recess. She would lay out a blanket on the lawn in front of what's now the University at Buffalo South Campus for class picnics. In the later years, she didn't mind when the subway system was constructed near the building because this gave the students access to downtown Buffalo where they would go purchase supplies at local delicatessens to make sandwiches as part of a classroom activity or visit the shops along Main Street for social activity.
"I really loved working at Cantalician... Everybody was family. Through the years that I was there, I was married, I was separated, I had three kids, and I had cancer. People were just so supportive. Anything anybody needed, people were just so kind," said Miss Claudia.
But, it was her experience as a teacher that kept her at Cantalician Center for all those years. Beaming with joy, Miss Claudia recalled many experiences with her students that will "stick with her forever." She told the story of a 15-year-old girl who was a selective mute who came to Cantalician Center with behavior issues. The girl had not talked since she was 5-years-old.
"She would not speak and that developed into self-injurious behavior like pulling out her eyelashes. She had a very low opinion of herself," said Miss Claudia.
The girl would communicate with Miss Claudia by writing handwritten notes. The student loved makeup, but Miss Claudia told her that she needed eyelashes to wear makeup. This encouraged the girl to stop pulling her eyelashes out so they could go shopping for makeup where they had another breakthrough in communication.
"When she was 19 years-old, we were on the train, and we were going downtown and the driver said 'Next stop, Lafayette Square!' She turned to me and said, 'The next stop is Lafayette Square.' At first she spoke only to me, but by the time she left at 21 years-old she was talking to everyone at the Cantalician Center," said Miss Claudia.
It was experiences like these that Miss Claudia said she will "never forget."
"That's why I did what I did. I loved my job. It was hard for me to leave friends that I saw every day. I have great memories that will last a lifetime," said Miss Claudia. "It was never about the money. It was a hard job, but it was extremely rewarding."