Emma exudes joy on her path to independence.
Meet the Slezak Family
New Alexandria, Pa.
“I was so proud, it almost burst my heart,” says Emma Slezak of graduating from the Bearcat B.E.S.T. Transition Program at St. Vincent’s College in May. The two-year program enabled Emma to complete academic, vocational and life skills training, along with hands-on work experience. In fact, the 20-year-old was such a strong employee during her stint at The Shack snack bar that she was offered a job after graduation.
“When Emma was born in 1996, we got the Down syndrome diagnosis right away,” mom Peggy recalls. “She began early intervention services when she was just 6 weeks old and did preschool through the intermediate unit.” Because Emma’s two older brothers, Andrew and Tyler, were in the local school, the Slezak family wanted Emma to follow suit.
Emma loved school and made lots of friends. Her charismatic personality helped many of her classmates understand people with special needs. “Mainstream kids learned from her,” dad Fred says. “Their interactions with Emma made them more understanding.” In fact, classmates still routinely stop her on the street, recalling her celebrity as Greensburg Salem High School’s homecoming queen.
“Emma is so social, I want her to be able to continue to be around people, to continue to grow,” Peggy says. The Slezak family is active in Special Olympics, where Emma met her boyfriend, Justin, and is learning about supports available to young adults with disabilities. She can take Go Westmoreland Transit to work for $4 a day, which helps with her independence. Emma also just applied for Medical Assistance to help with her expenses.
“These supports are so important,” Fred adds. “Fiscally, it’s in the best interest to have these programs, to help kids become more independent. They can work and earn a salary. Without these programs, they could be a drain on society.”
Fred, a farmer, says of the life he and Peggy, who works at Latrobe Hospital, have created, “We can manage. But a lot of people can’t make ends meet. Losing funding would be taking a step back. An inclusive society is a caring society.”
“Emma’s whole word is social,” Peggy says. “These programs, because of the social aspect, are critical. The proudest thing for us is her ability to include other kids with special needs with typical kids. It’s her gift.”