A year and a half ago, after decades of developing programs for children with disabilities and becoming one of the early experts in the education of children with autism, Jamey Wolff was preparing to retire. “I was having what I called ‘the long good-bye’,” she remembers. She’d gotten down to working three days a week at the Center for Spectrum Services, the agency she’d co-founded with Susan Buckler in 1976. Then the pandemic hit.
Wolff ratcheted back up to full-time-plus, helping the staff figure out how to meet the varying needs of children with autism and their families as they struggled with remote learning. Now that detailed protocols are in place, Wolff has at last retired and become Founder Emeritus. She will be honored at a Sapphire Celebration of the CSS’s 45th anniversary on Saturday, November 6, at the Wiltwyck Country Club in Kingston.
Speaking from California, where she was visiting her 97-year-old mother and 70-year-old sister, Wolff reminisced about the establishment of the program, which started in Woodstock with just two students. She had gone straight from getting a Masters degree in special education to working in a public school, an experience she found “discouraging.” Deciding to pursue her artistic interests and live in the country, she married musician Tim Kapeluck and moved to Woodstock, where she designed boutique clothing. “I sold designs with another person. At one point, I had to make 100 little bears holding a parasol.”
One day, coming up from her basement, after working for hours with aniline dyes, she picked up the local paper and saw a press release describing an alternative special education program called The Children’s Annex. The writer, Susan Buckler, did yet not have a building, students, or staff. “She just had an idea and was testing the waters to see who would respond. I felt like I had written it.” Wolff was the only person to call the phone number on the press release.
She and Buckler met for tea and discovered they had similar experiences, philosophy, and opinions about what education should look like. Together they rented a classroom in the Reformed Church on the Woodstock Village Green, and two students attended at no charge. Every Friday, the bulletin boards had to be turned around to hide the class material and reveal the religious information for the Sunday school students. Wolff established a trade with the Woodstock Children’s Center (which later became the Woodstock Day School). “I would do the resource room for them, and they would let us bring our two kids to their playground to be with other children,” she recalled.
Around this time, the public education system began to recognize the need to add structure to special education, coming up with guidelines and classifying students with disabilities. The number of students enrolled in The Children’s Annex doubled yearly for the next four years.
“Every year was different. We had to apply to the state, a complicated process, to be able to contract with public schools for tuition. At first we had parents pay privately, some a little, some a lot, some nothing.” Three years in, a funding mechanism from the federal government enabled the two founders to earn a salary.
Eventually, they outgrew the Reformed Church, moved to the Overlook Methodist Church, then had classrooms in both buildings. In 1983, they moved to Sophie Finn Elementary School in Kingston, taking over a floor of the building. By then, they were able to hire administrative assistants, speech pathologists, social workers, psychologists, and occupational therapists. A satellite program was started in a church in Ellenville. Fundraising enabled Wolff and Buckler to construct their own buildings in Kingston (1987) and Ellenville (1994).
Initially the program was not focused on autism. “Neither of us knew much about it,” said Wolff. “The field of psychology didn’t know much about it. Back then, the incidence of autism was infrequent. Both of us had about 15 minutes on autism in education class, and some of theories were completely wrong about the causes.”
In the third year, two students with autism came into the program, and the founders “went on a journey to help them learn better. That started to build our expertise.” There were not many programs for children who had clear diagnoses of autism, so the Annex staff became early authorities in the field. They also took on the role of educating the community about the needs of children with autism.
In 2009, the name of the program was changed to the Center for Spectrum Services. Today, not every student there has a classification of autism, but most have behaviors similar to children with autism and therefore benefit from the classes.
In early 2020, Wolff was winding down her role at CSS when COVID hit. “It was extraordinarily disruptive and challenging,” she said. “Kids with autism, especially young children, need one-on-one instruction, and they can’t really sit at a computer and focus.” She went to working full-time-and-a-half, as did many of her staff members, as they leapt into figuring out how to teach remotely, when regulations and guidance were not arriving in a timely way. Adding to the challenges, as other schools in our area experienced, were the rural locations of students’ homes, with limited access to the Internet. Some families and staff did not have appropriate devices, and many parents were working from home. “The list went on and on. There was a lot of decision-making, a lot of trial and error, but we figured it out as we went.”
CSS will be reopening this fall. If remote learning is required again, the staff now have tools in place and expert tech support on hand. Once the program had stabilized, Wolff turned again to her plans for retirement.
Originally, it had taken her a year to get used to the idea of retiring. Her husband was working as a hospice nurse and bringing home stories of patients who wished they had retired earlier in life. Kapeluck himself had a health scare and almost died. They bought a small trailer and contemplated traveling around the country. By now Wolff is looking at retirement as a new adventure, which may include being more active in the community and returning to her artistic inclinations.
“Curiosity and spaciousness are my goals,” she said. “I’ve always been so busy with parenthood, homemaking, and my full-time job. I’ve never given myself the space to see what else would bubble up.”
The Center for Spectrum Services will honor Jamey Wolff at the Sapphire Celebration of the organization’s 45th anniversary on Saturday, November 6, at the Wiltwyck Country Club in Kingston. Details of the event will be posted on https://centerforspectrumservices.org.