Karen Oliveri remembers what it was like to be different, to be the one teased.
Her lisp, for which she sought treatment in college, became an inspiration for a career. By the time she graduated from high school, she knew she wanted to be a speech therapist.
"I tell the kids, I know how hard it is," she said. "I'm still working on it."
For the past 32 years, she's worked in Milford schools, and now works primarily with first and second graders at
She works with a teacher, and a teacher's aide, in inclusion classes at the school. The inclusion classes allow children with special education needs — such as speech issues — to receive assistance but attend class alongside other children. Oliveri, who's been in education since the children were separated from their peers, says it's the best thing.
"I love inclusion," she said. "The kids get to practice their skills in a more natural environment. They get to apply their skills."
As a speech therapist, she also works with children in small groups, in what is called "pull-out" instruction. She works with children on more than pronounciation. The children, some of whom are autistic, typically need help in expressing themselves and in understanding language. She concentrates on social skills, problem-solving techniques, and specific skills, including how to have a conversation.
She started a routine for the children at Brookside called "the Lunch Bunch." She and a small group of children take their lunches up to the speech room, and they practice some problem-solving skills. For example, when a student told Oliveri he had lost a toy at school, the kids brainstormed how to find it. They ended up posting signs around the school.
She was nominated for the Teacher of the Year profile by Principal Kathleen Kay. In her nomination letter, Kay explained that Oliveri's work might go unnoticed, because she is not a traditional classroom teacher. But Kay said she has witnessed her effectiveness on many occasions.
"Over her time at Brookside, she has provided an inordinate amount of time, energy, and love into her craft, and among all her other accomplishments she has offered several non-verbal students the power and skills necessary to communicate with family, friends, teachers, and peers," Kay wrote. "If you have ever experienced the wonder of witnessing a child learn to speak or read you can truly appreciate the enormity involved in Mrs. Oliveri’s accomplishments — the fact that she is THE person who opens the door of communication for many non-verbal children. It is nothing short of miraculous and I have witnessed this miracle enabled by Mrs. Oliveri on more than several occasions."
Oliveri has the kind of job that she looks forward to, every day. When she's out on her regular 5:30 a.m. walk around the neighborhood, she's thinking of things she can try that day.
She's known around the school as "Mrs. O," and her habit at lunch is to sing to the kids, picking out a "Table of the Day," where the kids are emplifying positive behavior. The routine has the entire cafeteria singing.
"I love working with kids," Oliveri said. "They're fun. I don't know, they make me happy. There isn't a day that goes by that we don't laugh about something."