Friday, June 10, 2011

The Legacy of Richie McFarland

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 10, 2011.

Richie McFarland (courtesy of Jane McFarland)
In the summer of 1970, Richard and Jane McFarland received the heart-breaking news that their one-year-old son, Richard Jr., was suffering from a rare genetic disorder known as Hurlers Syndrome. Unless there was a medical breakthrough within the next few years, Richie’s prognosis was grim. Facing a gradual decline in mental abilities, physical strength and language skills, the boy’s life was destined to be short. His parents, faced with this future, sought ways to make Richie’s life full.

In a letter written several years later, Jane McFarland said, “Richie is thoroughly enjoying his life; he is a beautiful, happy and very active child; he seems to thrive on being with other people. It was when I first sensed this that I began to make inquiries about a nursery school for special children. A pediatrician at the Exeter Clinic informed me that we were very sadly lacking any such facility in the area. Subsequently a group was formed involving interested parents, physicians and others.”

By 1971, there was a growing consensus that early intervention for handicapped children would greatly enhance their ability to learn later on, but there were few resources for parents to turn to. The child’s specific needs made families feel isolated from the rest of society – particularly when there were no places that would accommodate the child’s needs. The group Jane McFarland spoke of in her letter first met in July of 1971. They quickly determined their goal: open a nursery school for handicapped children ages 3 to 6 by October. They hired a professional teacher, obtained space at the Bixler House on Center Street and called their school the Rockingham Children’s Center. The main goal of the school, according to a press release in the Exeter News-Letter that ran in September was, “to provide early educational experiences and socialization,” for “youngsters who are handicapped and who would be ineligible for other nursery schools.” With eight students enrolled, the school opened three days a week on October 5th, 1971.
Before the advent of mainstreaming, students who were physically, emotionally or educationally challenged were sent to schools outside the public school system. In Exeter, the similarly named Rockingham School for Special Children had served the needs of school-aged children of varying needs since 1959. But it was unable to provide services for very young children. The new Rockingham Children’s Center sought to fill that gap. Emphasis was placed on self-care, socialization, language skills and music. During its first year, the school functioned with one paid teacher, two music volunteers and a number of volunteer aides. By 1973, the school had grown to include 20 children - some handicapped and some not - with an expanded staff of one head teacher and two teacher aides. Occupational therapy was now offered, but the school had outgrown its location and, in 1974, moved to 11 Prospect Avenue.

In February of 1974, Richie McFarland’s short life ended. The board of trustees immediately proposed a name change for the center to honor the little boy who had inspired its creation. In a unanimous vote, the Rockingham Children’s Center became the Richie McFarland Children’s Center.

The center moved to its permanent location in Stratham in 1985 and continues to serve young children in Rockingham County. An additional center is now located in Portsmouth at the Pease International Tradeport. The mission of the center has not changed much from its original intent, providing developmental and support services for children with special needs, assistance to their families and assistance in the use of community and health resources. Countless families in Rockingham County have been helped by this organization, started 40 years ago by a small group of people who envisioned a better future, not just for their own, but for all children.

You can learn more about the Richie McFarland Children's Center by visiting their website, www.richiemcfarland.org, "liking" their facebook page, following their Twitter feed or by calling 603-778-8193.

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