Community to honor advocate for special ed

ESCANABA – The community will be honoring a long-time advocate for special education Thursday, when Lou Maniaci retires from the Delta-Schoolcraft Intermediate School District (DSISD) Board.

Maniaci, 89, of Gladstone, has served 28 years on the board, standing up for the rights of students – especially those with special needs. An open house is being held for her at the ISD from 2-4 p.m. Thursday.

“Lou has been a steadfast supporter and advocate for special education,” commented DSISD Superintendent Mike Koster. “She got in on the ground floor when special education was a hidden agenda. She has championed that cause. She’s been an outstanding board member.”

Maniaci said her inspiration for focusing on the needs of what she matter-of-factly calls “retarded kids” was her own son, Mark, who was born with Down syndrome.

According to the National Association for Down Syndrome, the genetic condition causes delays in physical and intellectual development. It occurs in one in every 691 live births and is the most frequently-occurring chromosomal disorder.

“When Mark was born, we didn’t have all the knowledge about special education as we do now,” Maniaci recalled. “We were exploring unknown territories.”

Down syndrome was not brand new to the Maniaci family, who lived in Indiana next door to a neighbor whose son had the genetic disorder. Maniaci considers it “divine intervention” that she was introduced to Down Syndrome through the neighbor kid and later gave birth to her fifth child, Mark, diagnosed with the same condition.

The mother next door helped Maniaci understand and cope with her Down Syndrome baby, said Maria Maniaci of Gladstone, the first child born to George and Lou Maniaci. Other children in the family are daughter Jo, and sons Mike and Steve.

The family lived in Indiana because that’s where George was enrolled in the Indiana University Medical School. His medical background and career provided opportunities for the family to receive advice on Mark’s special needs, said Maniaci.

Despite his condition, Mark participated in every family activity with the exception of skiing, which he never acquired the knack for, Maria said.

The family moved to Gladstone in June 1957 when George agreed to join the family practice established by Dr. James Dehlin, Dr. Carl Olson, and Dr. Charles Kee. In October 1974, George died in a motorcycle accident in Stonington. He was 51 years old.

Prior to his death, George and Lou were instrumental in developing educational services and other opportunities for children with special needs in Delta County.

As members of the Association for Retarded Citizens, now simply known as ARC, the couple helped start the area’s first school for special needs children, recalled Maniaci. The Kennedy School was a community project supported by local donations, local union labor, and the presidential family in the 1960s, she explained.

“It was a group of parents who wanted something better for their kids,” Maniaci added, recalling how she drove students in a green station wagon known as “The Green Machine” because no public school transportation was available.

George was president of the Delta County ARC and later became president of the Michigan organization. He helped write the special education legislation in the 1970s which mandated special education services in public schools, explained Maria.

Over the years, opportunities expanded for special needs children in the area. Special education students are taught in the regular public classrooms. Others attend class at the ISD Learning Center in Escanaba at the former St. Anne’s Catholic Church property.

“It was step-by-step progress to do something for our retarded kids,” said Maniaci, adding it was a slow but determined process at both the local and national levels.

“We had the help of several strong people in the department of special education who gave advice on how to get things going,” said Maniaci. “You thank the Lord he gives you the where-with-all to do this.”

Forty years ago, Lou and George also helped start Lakestate Industries which provides employment and community involvement opportunities for those with barriers. Their son, Mark, worked there before his death in the spring of 2006. As founders of Lakestate, both Lou and George have been on the board.

Special Olympics also came to the Upper Peninsula after having evolved downstate through ARC, said Maniaci who dearly loves tennis. She was inducted into the Special Olympics of Michigan Hall of Fame in 2006 for her community efforts.

As an ISD board member, Maniaci said she has been able to be involved in special education and encourage people who have special needs children. She also hopes she has created a public respect for caregivers and their family members who have special needs.

“My word to others is just be kind. It could happen to you down the road. You never know,” she said. “You could be crippled or handicapped.”

Looking back on the strides made locally for those with special needs, Maniaci says much of it was made possible because of her son, Mark. He has been her inspiration to “get over it,” “just do it,” “give to others,” and “keep busy.”

Maniaci’s other four children are following her example and are also involved in Down syndrome organizations and other supportive efforts where they live.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” said Maniaci as she grinned and clasped her hands together.