Natalya Gutierrez is an unmistakable extrovert, while her little sister Abby would probably be described as an introvert.
Natalya loves to ask questions, sing, dance and dress up. Abby is quiet and likes to be around her family and pets.
When they went to a recent friendship dance at their school, Natalya, 5, hit the dance floor with friends, while Abby kept to herself.
But both sisters seem to light up whenever Megan Hopp— a developmental specialist at the Licking County Board of Developmental Disabilities — shows up for a visit.
And they both love going to school at Southwest Licking’s Early Learning Center.
Although the sisters are very different, and have goals built around their individual needs, they’ve both found amazing support systems in Licking County, said their parents, Cassady and Joe Gutierrez.
“If we have a question, I know I can contact anyone at any time,” Joe said. “They are very open and helpful, always giving the advice they can give us.”
After each serving nine years in the U.S. Marine Corp., Cassady and Joe moved to Ohio with their two sons to pursue jobs at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service in 2015. They settled in Etna and Natalya was born in 2016.
As she approached her third birthday, the Gutierrezes expressed concerns to their pediatrician that she was struggling with speech.
She was using one-word sentences and would often point at what she needed. When she didn’t get her needs met, she would kick or bite in frustration.
It was a very difficult time for their family, Joe said. There were a lot of unknowns and he and Cassady had a lot of concerns about how they could help her communicate.
Their pediatrician referred them to LCBDD and they met with Megan and Early Intervention Service Coordinator Laura Elliott to start receiving services.
With their support, they began navigating the process of getting Natalya into the Early Learning Center.
Even with the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic — the visits from Megan and the hard work of the teachers at the ELC made a huge difference for Natalya.
“She’s made so many leaps and bounds,” Cassady said.
Natalya is talking up a storm and is better able to express her emotions.
“To hear her, the way she is now, it is so much of a difference from the way she was a year ago,” Joe said.
Seeing how much the program helped Natalya, Cassady and Joe didn’t hesitate to reach out for support for Abby, when, at 18 months old, she wasn’t using words to communicate.
They’ve seen Abby gain confidence, from attending the ELC and working with Megan. Cassady and Joe are now in the process of pursuing an autism diagnosis so they can find ways to support her even more.
As they help Natalya get ready for kindergarten and Abby succeed in preschool, the Gutierrezes like to keep their girls busy.
They’ve tried soccer, t-ball and softball and enjoy watching their older brothers’ wrestling and cross-country meets. They are regulars at the Reynoldsburg YMCA and enjoy the Playnasium.
Their current Service Coordinator, Kristin Bashore, helped the family use their Family Support Services funds to get a zoo membership, which both girls love.
As their girls get older, Cassady and Joe said they are thankful, knowing they have so much support at school and at home.
“We have an extraordinary group of people who work over there,” Joe said.