When my mother passed away after 36 years of teaching, her ex-students came from all over the world to pay their respects. She had taught in Australia and Papua New Guinea, but the exotic destinations didn’t matter near as much as her thoughtful actions. That’s the mark of a good teacher. Their caring words and personal sacrifices stay with you for the rest of your life. We are fortunate to have teachers like that here on the Long Beach Peninsula. Loretta Benenati and Sheila Olson are making a big difference in little lives, right here in our own backyard.
Loretta Benenati was just another teacher, underpaid and overworked when she gave birth to tiny twins with disabilities. Until that day, she never gave much thought to the struggles of the developmentally or physically disabled, but suddenly she was forced to think about it. Her life changed in an instant.
Fast forward nearly 16 years, and it is she that is providing strength, advice, and help to families struggling with the demands of raising a disabled child. As a preschool teacher at Ocean Beach School District in Long Beach, she has the opportunity and privilege of helping families cope during the darkest of days. They celebrate small victories every day as they watch the children improve socially, developmentally, and even physically.
Her coworker and friend, Sheila Olson, is her right hand in the toughest of times. Sheila’s brother is autistic, and one of Loretta’s twins in severely disabled. It created an instant bond between the two preschool teachers that has made them the dynamic duo of the ECEAP. Sheila was a sub from 2010-2013, assistant teacher from 2013-2016, and a teacher from 2016 to present. So it will be 10 years at the end of this school year that she has been working with disadvantaged children. Ask anyone on the Peninsula where to go for help for a child with disabilities, and you’ll hear their names called with the most profound respect.
Loretta works with special needs children from birth to age five, and she does it all as a single mother of five children, and three of them have disabilities! One of her kids is a foster child from preschool that she took in over a year ago when she realized he had a disadvantaged home situation. His mother asked Loretta to be his guardian while she woks on sobriety. There seems to be no end to her energy and kindness. It’s clear that both children and parents appreciate and love her.
As I talked with Sheila and Loretta while the kids chased balloons, it was hard to get a word in. The children’s laughter echoed off the walls of the classroom. It didn’t seem like I was watching disabled children play. They looked all like ordinary kids having fun. Loretta and Sheila are thrilled that they finally are inclusive, meaning all children are together regardless of health or special needs. “All kids want the same things,” Loretta said. “They want friends, and they want to play. They want to be involved; they want to be read to.” It really is that simple, but the demands of dealing with disabled children can sometimes be overwhelming, and that’s where Loretta and Sheila come to the rescue.
The mother of one of their preschool students eagerly told me how Loretta and Sheila go above and beyond what is expected of a teacher. Tysha Wirkkala has an autistic child and worked with Sheila’s autistic brother. Loretta worked with him one-on-one, while Sheila worked with him in a group setting. She describes the women as miracle workers. There was a time when Tysha felt lost, not knowing how to handle the new diagnosis of having an autistic child. But Loretta and Sheila gave her the encouragement and reassurance when she needed it the most. “They are the sweetest souls helping some of the most fragile people on the Peninsula,” she said. They are not only an inspiration but a mentor for these families.
When I asked Loretta about their biggest challenges, she didn’t have to think long. They are drowning in paperwork. She has a caseload of nearly 50 kids, and each one requires a slew of paperwork for each of the different programs and needed services. Of course, funding is a close second to all of the paperwork. When they need to buy something, it’s always a struggle to figure out which agency or department is willing to pay for it. Many times, by the time it’s figured out, it’s too late. So they buy it themselves with their own money. It was apparent though that she doesn’t harbor resentment over it but just accepts it as a necessary part of her job.
As I left the school that day, I found myself wondering how they do it day in and day out. I guess the only way they can is because they love it. It’s their calling, and when you’re passionate about helping others like they are, it makes it all worthwhile. If you need resources for infants or toddlers with disabilities, you can learn more at ESIT (Early Support for Infants and Toddlers) or ECEAP (Early Childhood Education and Assistance).