On her early morning ride to school Leona, 8, excitingly goes over her lines for her role in the upcoming community play. She can’t wait to act, sing and dance with all her friends in their latest production.
Theater is just one of Leona’s many hobbies. She also loves to swim, dance and hang out with her friends from school and theater.
Social interactions and communication haven’t always been easy for Leona. She was diagnosed with autism at the Stramski Children’s Developmental Center at MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach when she was in pre-school.
“She has grown and progressed so much, she’s really blossomed on stage and in the classroom,” says her mom, Courtney. “When she was diagnosed, it was hard to know what to do next, but the Stramski Center has been there for our family and supported us along the way.”
Gary Feldman, M.D., medical director and Ioana Pal, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist at the Stramski Center, have helped Leona and Courtney since her diagnosis. They continue to work with Leona to keep up with developmental milestones, social interactions and the adjustment to elementary school.
“Dr. Feldman and Dr. Pal really are wonderful,” says Courtney. “The Stramski Center has helped me find support from my community, know what questions to ask when it comes to school, and helped my daughter find the confidence needed to discover activities she loves, like theater.”
Leona has inspired Courtney to become an advocate for autism awareness and inclusion in her own community. Courtney is currently serving as the Communications Chair for the Long Beach Special Education Community Advisory Committee (CAC).
“Things aren’t always as inclusive as we would hope, and Leona has inspired me to try to make a difference in our community,” says Courtney. “I try to help educate other parents and families who are going through the same struggles I was going through. Informing them about the support that’s out there for them like the Stramski Center. Letting them know that everything is going to be alright, what everything means, and what next steps they should take.”
On April 2, the Stramski Center kicked off Autism Awareness Month with their annual “Light It Up Blue” event, bringing together patients and families affected by autism to support, spread awareness and connect over family-friendly fun.
Leona, Courtney and Leona’s Dad, Sam, attended the event, participating in the fun sensory activities like bubbles and blue slime, and connecting with other families.
“Light It Up Blue was so much fun,” says Courtney. “It’s nice to come together as a community and meet other families who are going through the same thing.”
Courtney even hosted her own Autism Awareness Month event. She partnered with one of her neighbors to organize a family block party with food and games, bringing together her neighborhood in support of autism awareness and inclusion. All the proceeds for her event went to programs that support children with autism.
Now, back at school, Courtney gives Leona a big hug and kiss, before Leona runs through the school yard gates to join her classmates.
“Leona has become an inspiration for her family and her community,” says Courtney. “She’s not only a star on stage, but in the hearts of everyone she meets.”