LEWISTON — In 1996, Stephanie Gelinas was a speech therapist with a dream.

In the basement of a Lewiston medical building, she was running the Sandcastle Preschool Program and providing speech and language help to local children, but she wanted to do more — she needed to do more.

“My sister was born with Down syndrome, and I remember back in the ’60s, one of the things that was really common was, you know, parents were told to put them in Pineland, which was an institution,” Gelinas said. “So I grew up really blessed beyond belief to grow up alongside her. I watched my parents really advocate for her, but what struck me was that she was always sort of marginalized, segregated.”

In her small program, all children learned together. But too many graduated from Sandcastle preschool, only to be isolated in special education classrooms in elementary school. How many more kids could she help with a larger program and a greater ability to advocate for them, she wondered. And how could greater integration change the lives of kids who didn’t have special needs?

“They begin to understand that diversity is not just ‘You’re white, I’m black,'” Gelinas said. “You might access the playground on your wheelchair; I’m going to access it on my feet. You might take food through your mouth, but I’m going to take it through my G-tube. They begin to see it. I think that’s just as important as the reading, writing and arithmetic that we do.” 

Twenty years later, Sandcastle has grown from a tiny, two-staffer basement preschool program and speech therapy practice into Sandcastle Clinical & Educational Services, a private nonprofit with 47 staff members, offering a half-dozen therapies in a sunlit 16,000-square-foot facility at 72 Strawberry Ave.


Sandcastle served 12 families that first year. It now helps 750.

But one thing hasn’t changed: Gelinas, 54, still thinks about her younger sister, Cindy Cote, every day.

“She inspires me to do this,” she said.

Gelinas runs Sandcastle with a staff of eight teachers, 17 teaching assistants, 14 clinicians, five front-office workers and others. She’s also kept it a family affair: Her older sister, Charlene O’Clair, oversees Sandcastle’s finances.

“We’re very different,” she said. “Even though we’re sisters, we’re like complete opposites. But we share certainly the same heart for the mission.”

In addition to the speech and language therapy it was founded on — Gelinas still serves as a therapist — Sandcastle provides psychological evaluations, counseling, occupational therapy and physical therapy. Its most recent addition is audiology, run on site through Sandcastle’s L/A Hearing Center, which provides hearing testing and services for children and adults.


But the biggest part of Sandcastle remains its preschool, a four-room program for children 18 months to 5 years old. About 60 percent of the children are on the autism spectrum or have been diagnosed with Down syndrome, developmental delays or other special needs. About 40 percent of students have no special needs.

Parents like the diversity.

“It’s a lot of word of mouth,” Gelinas said. “They want more than reading, writing and arithmetic.”

Parents also like Sandcastle’s philosophy: Provide therapies in the classroom when possible — rather than pulling a child with special needs out of class — and make lessons natural for all children. 

“If I want to teach you the the color pink, it’s not going to be with a flashcard,” Gelinas said. “It’s going to be, ‘Pink is everywhere in this classroom — let’s find it.'” 

Heidi and Michael Czerkes began sending their son, Theo, to Sandcastle about a year ago. Theo, who just turned 6, has Down syndrome. 


“He’s actually accessing every single one of the therapies they offer at Sandcastle,” Heidi Czerkes said. “You get all of it.”

Adopted overseas, Theo had gone to a Hong Kong school that taught him basic skills. But Czerkes said her son has progressed in “leaps and bounds” at Sandcastle, where he’s developed the fine motor skills to hold a crayon and the gross motor skills to climb stairs. And though he doesn’t talk, an iPad, suggested by Sandcastle, helps him communicate.  

“I don’t think we would have even thought about that if it wasn’t for their expertise and their experience with kids like Theo,” Czerkes said.

She likes Sandcastle’s team philosophy, which involves parents, therapists and teachers in children’s therapy. 

“Everybody works together,” Czerkes said. “If something happens in the classroom, his physical therapist is right there and his speech therapist is just down the hall. I wasn’t expecting that when we came in, and I would not change that now. It’s made all of us feel really, really empowered.” 

MaineCare and private insurance pay for the bulk of Sandcastle’s services. Parents pay tuition to the preschool and, as a nonprofit, Sandcastle gets funding from United Way and other donors. Its biggest fundraiser is Maine’s Got Talent, an event that features 10 performing artists competing on stage for prizes. 


This year, Sandcastle will add another event to its calendar: an April 28 open house to help celebrate its 20th anniversary. 

Even though Sandcastle has been around in one form or another for two decades, Gelinas still hears from people who didn’t realize it existed — until they needed it. 

“We don’t want to be the best-kept secret,” she said.


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