Miriam Foundation: 100 years and counting

ABOVE: From left to right, Joan Holland, Director of The Miriam School, Gretchen G. Davis, board president, Judi Scissors, chairperson of the 100th Anniversary Gala, and Andrew Thorp, executive director of the Miriam Foundation, pose for a photo in the lobby of the Miriam School.

By Kate Gaertner, Jewish Light Staff

With 10-student class sizes, no formal grades and two-way mirrors for parental observation in every classroom, the Miriam School isn’t your average elementary school. 

But the students at Miriam aren’t average either, and the school’s mission embraces their quirks. Founded in 1956, the school aims to provide an optimum educational experience for children from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade with multiple learning disabilities, attention deficits, speech and language disabilities, sensory perception deficits and fine or gross motor delays.

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According to Jackie Smith, the school’s director of admissions, it is this focus on new and different approaches that allows the school to best serve every student.

“We always say that there’s a method to our madness,” Smith said. “We’re willing to do whatever it takes to make these kids successful.”

For the teachers at the Miriam School, that means helping each child discover the unique way in which he or she learns-and in the process, helping students equip themselves to better face the academic, personal and social challenges they face.

“Every child has an individualized program, because we recognize that every child has different needs,” Smith said.

As part of his individual education program, eight-year-old Adam Nazaruk, who has ADHD and other learning disabilities, is given something called a “fidget” to play with during class so that he can release his energy. Adam’s mother, Kim Nazaruk, said that the teachers’ approach has made Adam more aware of how he best learns.

“They tell him that he has ADHD, that it’s not something to be ashamed of. Now he knows that he has to work harder because of it,” Nazaruk said.

Part of the Miriam School’s unique environment is the recognition that students often need social guidance to accompany academic instruction, as well as an emphasis on experiential and multi-sensory learning and the incorporation of speech therapy and occupational therapy into the school day.

“We know that letting them participate in occupational therapy in the middle of the day allows them to calm down a little. When they get back to the classroom, they’re less fidgety-they’re ready to learn,” Smith said.

And because each child has different needs and abilities, the school works closely with parents to structure every student’s curriculum, allowing them to observe any lesson through two-way mirrors. For Tammy Dunne, whose son James, 6, started at the Miriam School this year, watching the classroom has allowed her to better understand James’ Asperger syndrome and appreciate the progress he’s making.

“It’s so rewarding to watch him make progress in things like speech therapy. The teachers have this incredible ability with the kids-it’s such a blessing,” Dunne said.

The school teaches students the basic reading, writing and math skills they need to keep pace with their mainstream peers, but perhaps more importantly, it teaches students how to cope and compensate. According to Smith, the school’s ultimate goal is to ensure that each of its students will be successful in a mainstream school environment, and the average stay at the school before moving on to a conventional public or private school is three to four years.

“Our job is to make sure that the transitional process is in place at the end so that the parents and children can make sure that they’ll be successful in the next step,” Smith said.

Nate Larson , 26, attended the Miriam School for kindergarten and sixth and seventh grades before graduating from Brentwood High School and Beloit College. For Larson, who has ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, the Miriam School’s focus on helping him understand his disabilities enabled his success in college and beyond.

“When I was in college, I was able to channel my hyper energy to go very quickly into a very deep place in whatever I was studying,” Larson said. “Going to the Miriam School helped me turn hyperactivity into a more productive affair.”

Larson now directs the Turner Center of the Arts in St. Louis, which offers arts programs for children and adults with disabilities.

Miriam’s Jewish roots

In its 54 years, the Miriam School has evolved from an institution for the mentally retarded to today’s school, which fills a niche for students who have the potential to perform well in school but need specialized programming to adapt. And the Miriam Foundation, which supports the school, has an even more storied history.

One hundred years ago, the Miriam Foundation-originally known as Miriam Lodge No. 17-was founded by the United Order True Sisters (UOTS). Created in 1846, the UOTS was originally a secret society for recent Jewish immigrants, whose meetings were conducted in German and whose feminist leanings toward intellectual stimulation and material support met the gall of many members’ husbands.

As the husbands of members of the Order prospered financially, the group turned its focus toward philanthropy. It was in this spirit that the Miriam Foundation was established 100 years ago by Fanny K. Landau, the grandmother of current member Margie Frank, who served as the organization’s president from 1977 to 1979.

Historically, the Miriam Foundation has supported its philanthropic endeavors with community fundraisers. Since 1973, the Foundation owns and operates a Maplewood resale shop called the Switching Post, which consigns and re-sells fine household goods. The Foundation also raises money by assisting with estate sales and with “Empty-Outs,” a program through which Miriam volunteers sort and pack items designated for donation.

First obtained by the Foundation in 1913, the Miriam School’s property on Bacon Avenue in Webster Groves initially served as a convalescent home for cancer patients, known as the Miriam-Rosa Bry Rehabilitation Center. When the rehabilitation center moved to Jewish Hospital in 1956, the women of the Miriam Foundation created a private school for the mentally retarded. But after the Special School District was established in 1957 to serve special-needs children in St. Louis County public schools, the Miriam School’s directors found themselves looking for an alternative focus.

In 1962, the Miriam Foundation altered the school’s programming to serve children with multiple learning disabilities. Its programs have continued to evolve as more is known about Asperger syndrome, ADHD and other disabilities that affect its students, and according to Mary Cognata, the school’s associate director, Miriam has continued to embrace new techniques for helping students manage their learning styles.

“We’ve evolved toward making advocacy more of a priority,” Cognata said. “The school’s leadership has come to the understanding that true learning is teaching kids how to learn.”

In 2007, the Miriam Foundation extended its reach, using the resources developed at the Miriam School to help families in the community. Through the Miriam Learning Center, the Foundation funds extracurricular academic and therapeutic support-including social skills training, study skills training, and speech, occupational, art and music therapy-for students who need more than a traditional school environment to meet their potential.

And its members have extended their reach as well: Membership in the Miriam Foundation is now open to all who wish to aid in its philanthropic mission. According to Judy Zafft, who served as the organization’s president from 1989 to 1991, the women of the Miriam Foundation continue to embrace a spirit of community leadership.

“My membership in the Miriam Foundation gave me a confidence,” Zafft said. “As we grew as an organization, I grew as a person.”

A spirit of giving

The work the Foundation does is in every sense a collective effort, says Zafft. Just as the school’s staff works as a team to provide an optimal experience for every student, the Miriam Foundation relies on the efforts of its all-volunteer board and the donations of its many contributors to continue and expand upon its programs.

“We rely on some very dedicated St. Louis families to continue to be able to do what we do,” Zafft said.

Zafft points to the familiar St. Louis names that emblazon the plaques above the classrooms in the school’s building on Bacon Avenue – the Wolffs, the Millstones, the Foxes and the Lopatas, to name a few-as evidence of the school’s continued reliance on community support.

This year, a donation from Mary Ann Lee provided a large part of the funding for a new $2.2 million dollar gymnasium on the campus of the School and Learning Center, which will be used for community events as well as student recreation. And donations to the Foundation’s annual scholarship campaign as well as other fundraising efforts ensure that the school provides resources for each student that go beyond the actual cost of tuition and fees, which totaled $22,600 per student in 2009.

But not every family can pay full tuition, and the school provides tuition-assistance awards to families on the basis of demonstrated need. According to Sarah Scott, the foundation’s development director, need for financial aid went up last year, from 45 percent of families receiving aid to 55 percent.

“With the economy the way it is, the financial needs of our families have gone up significantly,” Scott said.

Executive director Andy Thorp and members of the board see financial need as an unfortunate obstacle for families whose children could potentially benefit from the Miriam School’s unique programs.

“We really want to know that we’re eliminating financial obstacles for families who would like to send their children to a place like the Miriam School, and we work to make that possible,” Thorp said.

Celebrating a centennial

On September 25th, supporters of the Miriam Foundation will come together to celebrate the Foundation’s 100th anniversary with a gala that will benefit the Miriam School. Scott hopes that the gala will raise $200,000 to contribute to the Foundation’s annual needs-based scholarship fund. The fund is expected to total $600,000 this year and will provide tuition assistance to families in need.

“We’re thrilled. It’s something we haven’t done in a while,” Scott said.

In addition to commemorating the Foundation’s 100 years of area philanthropy, the gala, chaired by Foundation member Judi Scissors, will honor Lucy Lopata for her lifetime contributions to the Miriam Foundation’s programs. Marilyn and Sam Fox, Lanie and Milton Goldenberg, Judith and Dr. Ira Gall and Margie and David Frank will serve as honorary chairs.


Miriam Foundation 100th Anniversary Gala, honoring Lucy Lopata

When: September 25th

Where: The Four Seasons, 999 N. Second Street

How much: $175 and up

More info: Proceeds from the fundraiser go to scholarships to the Miriam School

For more information, call 314.962.6059 or visit www.miriamfoundation.org

About the Guest of Honor:

Lucy Lopata: The widow of a chemical engineer and a mother of four, Lucy Lopata is anything but your average St. Louis housewife.

A native of Germany, Lucy Mayer Lopata and her family fled to the United States in 1934 to escape Nazi persecution. In 1939, she married Stanley Lopata, a Washington University graduate and chemical engineer. Together, they founded Carboline Co., growing a basement chemistry laboratory into a $46 million business. Stanley Lopata died in 2000.

Throughout her life, Lucy Lopata has contributed tirelessly to the St. Louis community, and the Miriam Foundation will honor her for her achievements at its 100th anniversary gala. A member of Shaare Emeth and of the National Council of Jewish Women, Lopata served as the Miriam Foundation’s president in 1965 and 1966.

The Miriam School’s current building, erected in 1993, is named after and endowed by the Lopatas.