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Giving Them a Voice

Sep 27, 2013 10:58AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds

By Rebekah Elliott // Photo by Rebekah Elliott

Judi Cornette is one of those rare individuals who sincerely loves her job. And it makes sense considering she’s been with the Benedictine School for more than three decades. Yet despite her long tenure as a speech and language pathologist and current position as clinical coordinator, Cornette is hesitant to acknowledge the large part she’s played in enhancing the Ridgely-based school for those with developmental disabilities.

With many of Benedictine’s students unable to produce oral language, Cornette has worked tirelessly over the past 36 years to increase the number of speech, physical, and occupational therapists within Benedictine’s clinical services, in addition to developing an assistive technology department, which establishes materials and devices that students can use to communicate.

She tells the story of a young boy who had no communication skills prior to his arrival at Benedictine. So, Cornette—“along with his therapists,” she reminds me—taught him to communicate with an electronic device. While visiting his family, the boy used his device to talk to his mother. She later emailed Cornette to say it was the first time in his 12 years that he was able to call her “mom.”

“It truly is a gift,” she says. “We have children who, because of the frustration of not being able to communicate and the anxiety that produces, in the past have been maybe violent or physically aggressive, and now they have the tools to communicate and manipulate their world through more appropriate means.”

Cornette also created one of Benedictine’s mottos, “Give Them a Voice, Give Them a Choice,” and through the stories she shares, it’s evident she’s brought that voice to Benedictine’s students. But not all by herself, she says, praising the trove of therapists with whom she works.

“It really is a team effort,” she says. “And, on the other hand, it’s not even us doing the work, it’s the kids. We’re just giving them the tools.”

Until this year, Cornette worked with students on a daily basis, helping to determine what devices allowed them to best communicate with others. Now, she works more as a support person to the therapists, along with hosting workshops and training staff members.

“It was interesting because I thought I would really never want to stop the direct services, but I find there’s such a need for all of that support and it has such a positive effect on the treatment of the kids,” she says.

After dedicating the majority of her adult life to the needs of developmentally disabled children, it’s clear Cornette still finds joy in what she does. In this instance, it seems the old adage “choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” could not ring more true.

“It’s because of the people that I’m working with and the philosophy of the program that allows us to do the best we can for the kids,” she says. “And I have learned so much from the children, in terms of patience, trust, integrity. They’ve given me an awareness of what’s real in the world.”
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