When Easter Seals started a sibling group at its Villa Park location three years ago, the staff knew Holly Aldrich was the best person to head up the new program. Aldrich, who has cerebral palsy, had grown up receiving therapy at Easter Seals and her bubbly personality charmed everyone.
"She knows what it's like to be that kid in therapy, so that kind of flows over into having a pretty good knowledge of what kids and siblings might need," says Sue Diver, social worker at Easter Seals DuPage and the Fox Valley Region.
Aldrich, of Elmhurst, is finishing her master's degree in rehabilitation counseling psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She earned a bachelor's in sociology and women's studies at Illinois Wesleyan and has spent the last three summers heading up the Summer Sibling Group. The group provides brothers and sisters of children with special needs an opportunity to share their feelings and experiences.
"It makes the process easier for everyone to give them something to do while their sibling is in therapy," says Aldrich, who plans art projects, games and activities for hundreds of children who pass through the therapy center all summer. "It gives the siblings the idea that they're special, too, and their role is just as important as the other child."
Working with siblings has given Aldrich insight into how disabilities affect everyone in the family.
"The disability has a ripple effect on how parents see the world and how the siblings see the world," she says. "Oftentimes the siblings have their own set of issues, but they can get overlooked. They're expected to be fine. But having a disabled sibling changes their world, too."
Aldrich has siblings of her own-Adam, 25, and Andrew, 18. Having a brother just 18 months older gave Aldrich someone to look up to, as she tried to keep up with him. Her parents, Meg and Mike, taught her that while she may do some things differently or they may take longer, it didn't mean she couldn't do anything she put her mind to.
"My parents were really successful in instilling the idea that while I have a disability, it doesn't have to define me in any significant way," she says.
Diver agrees. "I don't believe that Holly has ever let her disability get in the way of what she wants to do," she says, "and at the same time, she's never used it as a crutch for what she couldn't do. She focuses on what she can do, and she just has this really overwhelming spirit about her."
Aldrich wants to take her experiences growing up with a disability and use them in her career as a rehabilitation counselor. She'll work with clients on everything from dealing with their feelings to educational goals to family dynamics. While the degree program she's in is geared toward adults, she hopes her Easter Seals experience with children lets her work with everyone in a family touched by disabilities.
In the meantime, Easter Seals hopes to get her back for at least one more summer, but everyone knows she's destined to make a difference in whatever she does.
Liz DeCarlo is the senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.