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First Steps supporters protest potential end of program

February 09, 2005
By: Jeana Bruce and Elizabeth Baird
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Over a hundred Missouri parents and their children filled the capital Wednesday, protesting the end of a program designed to assist children with special needs.

The program's supporters presented a petition with over 28,000 signatures to Gov. Matt Blunt, hoping to save the First Steps program.

The program, which provides physical, occupational, and speech therapies to disabled children under age three, could be lost to recent budget cuts.

"I have called for a change in the program so that private insurance and not Missouri taxpayers pick up the bill whenever possible," Blunt said.

Sen. Pat Dougherty (D-St. Louis City), said the program allows children a better chance to enter and succeed in the school system.

"The only purpose is to provide early intervention services," said Dougherty, "to reduce the severity of the disability."

First Steps served 8,041 children last year and was estimated to cost 27.2 million dollars, which is provided by federal funds, Medicaid, and general state revenue.

Concerned families also presented their cases to the House Education Appropriations committee.

Diane Kodelja testified while holding 21-month-old daughter Veronica. She suffers from Congenital Hydrocephalus, which impairs her motor skills as a result of brain damage. Kodelja spends over 15 hours a month in therapy with Veronica, most of which is spent at First Steps.

"Every single one of those therapists tells me what's going on with her," Kodelja said, "Without First Steps I would be so lost."

Budget cuts may end the program, but Blunt said he hopes to develop an effective replacement.

"Many people believe that the First Steps Program does not deliver services effectively as it could," said Blunt, "I have directed my staff to determine how we can best craft a new program that ensures the same level of services are being provided to the children."

However, First Steps advocates still have their doubts.

Malinda Terreri said the current program saved her son's life.

"Hearing this news was like falling back into the black hole when you first find out that your child has special needs." said Terreri, "You just want your child to be the best he can be."