S4S helps young student find her voice

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At top, from left to right, Fiona Dolan communicates with Eagleview/Parkview Elementary Speech Language Pathologist Kristen Mieser using her augmentative and alternative communication device. At bottom is one of the Saltillo screens on Dolan’s device. 

With the help of Songs4Soldiers, one Columbia student is continuing to find her voice.

Fiona Dolan, a 7-year-old in the Columbia school district, has a developmental delay that makes it hard for her to speak verbally. S4S, a not-for-profit organization which helps combat veterans and their families, help fund Fiona’s communication device. 

“I cannot thank them enough for doing this because it made such a great impact for our entire family,” Fiona’s mother Alyssa Dolan said.

Alyssa explained the device is a tablet with a Saltillo program installed. This program has several different screens that include buttons with pictures that correspond to words. 

When Fiona presses the buttons, the tablet says the corresponding words. 

“It has different categories so she can go to those different categories to find what she’s looking for,” Alyssa explained. “But it also can be personalized, so it has her name. She can push a button and say, ‘Hi, my name is Fiona. This is my communication device,’ or if she wants … to talk to my mom she’ll hit ‘Nana.’” 

Alyssa said the tablet, which Fiona received in April, has brought multiple positives with it. 

“It gets rid of the guessing game,” Alyssa said, giving an example, “Before (the tablet), sometimes she would try to say ‘apple,’ but she can’t say ‘apple’ correctly, so we would go through several fruits and she’d get frustrated. Now, she’ll just go ‘I want an apple’ or ‘I want a banana.’” 

Overall, the tablet has given Fiona more independence, Alyssa said. 

“The tablet also gives me and my husband a sense of security because if she gets lost she can tell somebody who she is,” Alyssa said. “So, we don’t have to worry about her safety as much because now she has a way to communicate with (the tablet).” 

Currently, Fiona is working with her teachers to use the device to make full sentences. Alyssa said Fiona loves telling silly stories with the help of her device, helping Fiona to showcase her personality. 

“She’s definitely letting us know she has a sense of humor,” Alyssa said with a laugh. 

It is also improving Fiona’s verbal language skills. 

“It’s also helping her to verbalize a bit better because there’s a section where she can hit a letter and it’ll say the sound the letter makes. She will sit in her room sometimes and just practice repeating what it says,” Alyssa explained. 

Saltillo was not entirely new to Fiona, nor to her classmates. As the Republic-Times recently reported, Parkview and Eagleview elementary schools use low-tech versions of the communication boards for a variety of activities and even have some high-tech devices like Fiona’s. 

“Before we got the tablet, we also had some of those (low-tech) sheets printed out and laminated for her to point at home, and then we started trying a device that the school had to see how she would do with it,” Alyssa said. “Since she did so well, we decided to go ahead and work on getting her her own device.” 

This was not an easy endeavor, however. TRICARE insurance, which the family obtains through Fiona’s father being retired from the U.S. Army, would not cover the full cost of the device. The Dolans still had to come up with about $2,000.

“We reached out to Songs4Soldiers to see if they could help with some of it, and almost immediately (S4S founder Dustin Row) replied back, ‘We’ll take care of all of it!’” Alyssa said. 

For Row, the decision to help the Dolans was a no-brainer. 

“It just always feels a little bit more special when it’s right here and super local. When there’s a kid involved – I’m a dad – it’s just better,” Row said. “It’s a community thing. The school was helping them and we were able to step in and help. When it can be local I really, really love it.” 

Row has not met Fiona yet, but through a chance encounter with Alyssa, he was able to hear all about Fiona’s progress with the device. 

“It was an early Sunday morning and I was like buying cat food at Dollar General and I hear, ‘Hey, you’re the S4S guy! You got my daughter this device with the school district.’ She gave me this huge hug and then we sat there and shot it up for 15 minutes. It felt great. That’s the kind of stuff that fills your soul up, man.” 

Alyssa said there is a lot people can learn from Fiona and kids like her. 

“I want people to realize that just because they need a device doesn’t mean they’re stupid,” Alyssa said. “They’re still people. They still have feelings and they really are smart. They just can’t communicate the way most people can communicate.” 

October is Augmentative and Alternative Communication Month. The goal is to raise awareness of augmentative and alternative communication and inform the public about the many different ways in which people communicate using communication devices.

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