Arledge 'a bridge' for students and families to school and work

·4 min read

Aug. 6—Erin Arledge, Whitfield County Schools' first — and, so far, only — Parent Mentor, has received the 2021 Phil Pickens Leadership Award from the Parent Mentor Partnership, a Georgia Department of Education initiative.

The award is "a statewide honor recognizing outstanding leadership in the collaborative work between home, school and community to improve outcomes for students with disabilities, outstanding contributions to the Georgia Parent Mentor Partnership program and consistent outstanding leadership accomplishments in special education," according to the partnership.

The partnership places a parent of a special needs student in a school system to improve the outcomes for students with disabilities by enhancing communication and collaboration between families, educators and the community.

This award "is a huge deal," said Ruthie Rule, Whitfield County Schools' director of Special Education. Parents "need someone who understands it's a different feeling and responsibility to have a child with a disability, (and Arledge provides) such authenticity to that work."

The award is named after the state's former director of special education, who brought the Parent Mentor program to the state two decades ago, so it's especially meaningful for Arledge to receive it, she said.

"I was surprised, (but) I love my families, and I love the people I work with."

Arledge "doesn't like a lot of attention, but she's very deserving," Rule said. "She's made a huge difference in the entire community."

"I'm a bridge between home and school," said Arledge, who has been Whitfield County Schools' Parent Mentor for nearly two decades. "I do anything from helping them find resources inside and outside — therapies, doctors, financial help" — the school system to "helping them with the postsecondary transition."

Arledge "builds bridges between school and parents, between school and work," and the transition from school to the "real world (is her) area of expertise," Rule said. "Parents want to know what they do after" a child ages out of school, and Rule is an astute guide.

"Start the process of postsecondary transition as early as possible," Arledge advises families. "Get things prepared."

"I meet parents at eligibility meetings" when their children are young, so "they know me," and that familiarity makes them comfortable, Arledge said. "It's tough (having a child with a disability) — it has its joys, but there are definitely challenges — (but) I can say 'I know what you're going through.'"

Arledge's involvement with the school system began through her son Blake, who has Down syndrome.

"I wanted to be in school with him, a protective mom," she said. "I started as a paraprofessional," and she was offered the Parent Mentor role when it was established in Whitfield County Schools.

"There's a huge kickoff event every year with experts (providing information) about issues (involving) the special needs population, and there are 120 parent mentors across the state I can always go to for help with resources," she said. "We're like a family, and very supportive of each other."

Arledge has done "whatever (families) need to take a little stress off," she said. "A lot of them need you to walk them through the processes, (as) they're so weary, because it's just one thing after another with a special needs child."

Arledge is grateful to work in a school system that is "so transparent and has so much integrity with special education," she said. "They involve me in every meeting, and (Rule) loves these kids."

"(Rule) does it for them, and she always does what is best for the students," Arledge added. "It's easy to work for someone like that."

Arledge wants to help every special needs child find the same life success as her son — now in his mid-20s — who works at The Oakwood Cafe and has made numerous friends through Cross Plains Community Partner, a private nonprofit agency that supports those with developmental disabilities and their families.

Kasey Carpenter, owner of the restaurant, "has been so wonderful and supportive — The Oakwood Cafe is a model for how it should be — and Cross Plains has been a lifesaver for us with the valuable support they provide in the community," she said. "It takes a village, and Blake has had that with Whitfield County Schools, Cross Plains and The Oakwood Cafe."

"We want these (individuals) to have friends, a job and a social life, and we live in a wonderful community," she added. Being "a productive member of society, that is our goal for all of them."

"It can be stressful having a child with a disability, even a mild disability, but Erin can say to parents 'Let me tell you what we did,'" which is invaluable, and she offers "such a warm personality," Rule said. "A lot of parents come in anxious, but she's the perfect person" to ease their worries.

Arledge created a resource manual for families, which is available on the school system's website, www.wcsga.net/.

"I wish I had someone in this role to help me when I was younger," Arledge said. "I believe in what we're doing, and there's such a need for it."