Seeking to meet a need that was unmet in St. Louis, a group of Jewish women called the United Order of True Sisters set out to help the city’s underserved community. These were the early days of what later became the Miriam Foundation, which was originally chartered in 1910.
Executive director Andy Thorpe explains that until the 1950s, the organization’s work focused on helping the visually impaired, cancer patients and those in rehab facilities. Through the years, its mission evolved, and today, Miriam’s staff and volunteers work to improve the quality of life for children with learning disabilities and their families through innovative and comprehensive programs by encouraging the children to recognize and successfully meet their potential.
In St. Louis currently, Miriam serves more than 800 children with learning disabilities: one hundred of them as students of the Miriam School, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade, and more than 700 in the community. “We have the ability to reach out into the community to provide services such as tutoring, testing to try to identify what the child’s disability might be, occupational therapy and speech therapy,” Thorpe says. “It all really got its start about 50 years ago when we established the school.”
Thorpe explains that Miriam really “fills the holes” in the community for children who need services for learning disabilities. He notes that while public and private schools in St. Louis continue to do a better at serving these kids, Miriam can come in and make their education complete. “If (the schools) have a hard time getting the services they need (to help these kids), they will often turn to Miriam School for full-time services or to the learning center to provide things like tutoring and therapy,” Thorpe says. “The impact over the years on St. Louis has been huge, and it’s only growing.”
Thorpe notes the importance of the organization’s volunteers and their role in helping the foundation raise money for tuition assistance. “Just this last year, we provided more than $800,000 in tuition assistance to our families,” he says. “I think it’s hard to find a school in our community that provides that level of financial assistance to that number of students.”
The goal at Miriam is to be able to provide that access, no matter what the family’s financial capability is. Over the past 10 years, Miriam has awarded a total of $6.7 million in tuition assistance, with 52 percent of Miriam School families receiving tuition assistance this year.
“We know that many times, we’re the only place that children (and their families) turn to, and they depend on the support of volunteers to be involved,” Thorpe says.
Another important role Miriam volunteers play in the community is at the Miriam Switching Post, the foundation’s resale shop on Big Bend Boulevard in Maplewood. The store accepts donations of and sell gently used furniture and household items. “Hundreds and hundreds of hours of volunteering makes that store run,” Thorpe notes. “Without their support, we wouldn’t be making money at that store. Annually, we net about $300,000 from that store, which all goes directly to support tuition assistance.”
As for the future, Thorpe sees Miriam continuing to strive to meet the needs and fill the gaps in the St. Louis community where services aren’t provided. “Today, it’s learning disabilities, since we see a great need for that in the community. But as in the past, our focus has morphed. It may not be learning disabilities in 30 years; it may be something else.”
Barbara Silver, Volunteer
Barbara Silver always was interested in working with children, so when she moved to St. Louis and a friend asked if she wanted to volunteer for the Miriam School, she agreed.
Fifty years later, Silver has worked in every aspect of the school and the foundation. “There isn’t a job I haven’t done,” she says. After years of working in the classroom as a volunteer several days a week, Silver now serves on the board and helps raise money for the foundation.
“I saw what could happen with a child at Miriam from September to May and the improvement not only with the child’s progress, but the family dynamic, as well,” Silver says. “The kids who come to us that have failed in other situations just blossom and do so well because of the love, care and expertise our staff and teachers have.”
She calls Miriam a “one-stop shop” for parents of children with special needs because they can get all kinds of help in one place, whether it’s testing, evaluation, reading, socialization or therapy. “Parents don’t have to run everywhere and pull it all together,” Silver says.
Silver notes that when a child with special needs gets the help and education he or she needs, it improves the entire family’s dynamic. “It makes a difference in your life,” she says. “If they’re successful, their families are, too.”
Silver explains Miriam’s value in a unique way: “A school like this is just as important as the Botanical Garden or the Symphony. If you don’t have places like Miriam for children who need extra help, all the symphonies and the gardens in the world can’t put those families together.”
The volunteers and staff at Miriam are No. 1 and a pleasure to work with, Silver says, and that directly translates to the success of its students. “Students and parents come to us later on and tell us they don’t know what they would’ve done without (Miriam),” she says. “When you hear things like that, it makes everything so worthwhile.”