People often look up to their older siblings and follow their lead, but St. Marys native Melissa Flacinski said it was her younger sister Jessica who influenced her to become a speech-language pathologist.
Flacinski is currently employed as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) in a high/middle school in New Holland, Pa., working mostly with students in the life skills, learning support, autistic support and multiple disabilities programs.
“This population is very diverse. I service students who use Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC), sign language, big mack switches, sensory techniques, facial expressions, eye gaze, and/or speech to communicate,” Flacinski said. “Most of them are in school until 21 years of age and work towards independence. Many of us take this part for granted.”
Flacinski said most of the students she works with are in the process of successfully learning how to perform simple tasks such as washing dishes, following a recipe, doing laundry, reading street signs, using a bus schedule, and going grocery shopping.
“Much of what I do with my students relates to these and other independent living, community, employment and social skills,” Flacinski said.
Flacinski grew up in St. Marys with her parents, Mark and Caroline, and two sisters, Danielle, 23, and Jessica, 15. Her dad grew up in Johnsonburg and worked in Kane as a learning support teacher through Intermediate Unit 13 for most of his career, but now is a transition coordinator for the IU. Her mom spent most of her childhood in St. Marys, but occasionally in Owensboro, Ky., where her father grew up. She is a life skills teacher at St. Marys Area Middle School and Flacinski said she loves what she does. Given her parents’ occupations, it’s not surprising that Flacinski chose her current profession.
“I guess it was just in my genes to become a professional in the area of special needs,” Flacinski said.
Flacinski’s sister, Danielle, is currently her roommate and is finishing up her bachelor’s degree from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and Jessica is a freshman at St. Marys Area High School.
“She loves life and everyone that shares it with her,” Flacinski said.
Although it seems obvious to her now, Flacinski did not arrow in on her current profession right away.
My schooling included St. Marys Parochial, St. Marys Area High School and six years at IUP,” Flacinski said. “I had a difficult time finding myself throughout elementary and high school, as many of us do. I had many people that influenced me in the choices I made that led to my career, many of which were in the area of art. I began college thinking that art would be it.”
In her first two years of college, Flacinski took classes in interior and graphic design. She realized that although she would always love art, it wouldn’t be her full-time occupation.
“By the second semester of my sophomore year I realized that art would be a hobby, but not a career,” Flacinski said. “Toward the end of my sophomore year, my mother brought back the memories of [me] helping Jess. This is when I began my journey.”
Flacinski’s sister, Jessica, was born with Down's Syndrome and went through a tough time in her early years.
“She received speech, occupational and physical therapy from the time she was born and continues to receive these services at school,” Flacinski said. “I was 10 when she was born and loved to help with her home therapy sessions. I never really knew exactly what I was doing, but enjoyed it.”
With her sister in her thoughts and her hopes for her students in her mind, Flacinski said she enjoys seeing her students reach a milestone, no matter how small.
“It takes time to see the progress and the difference I am making in these students’ lives, but when I see it, I savor it,” Flacinski said. “I beat myself up thinking that I am not making an impact, but hearing from parents and how happy they are is the best feeling.
“Knowing that the students are trying to take home what they work on in school and seeing how happy they are to come to speech makes me feel like my job is worthwhile. “
Flacinski recently moved to another part of central Pa. and said she has discovered a lot about that part of the state that she didn’t know before.
“In February of this year I moved to Lancaster city, which is about 25 minutes from my job. I previously lived in West Chester and Lancaster Township, below the city. Growing up, I associated Lancaster with Amish horses and buggies,” Flacinski said. “I’ve learned in the past two years that Lancaster is a small city, a wide variety of people live in the area, there is a large population of people living simply (like the Amish and Mennonite communities), but there are also plenty of shops for people of all ages and interests, there are many festivals and activities happening throughout the year, the oldest and longest running flea market called ‘Central Market’ is housed here, people enjoy roaming the city on ‘1st Friday,’ and much more. I knew none of this until moving to the area.
“Now that I live in the city, I learn new things every day. I’ve actually learned most of what I know from the regulars at Buchanan Dog Park. My dogs, Milo and Maddie, and I have become regulars over the past year and a half. It is a place where I meet new people, make new friends and let my dogs run happily without a leash.
“In the future, I would like to start volunteering for the Lancaster County Special Olympics and get involved in the large arts community.”
Flacinski said she now has the privilege of having two places she calls home.
“At this point, I call Lancaster ‘home’ and St. Marys ‘home home,’” Flacinski said. “I guess I will always be a St. Marys girl at heart, but will probably continue to live here or in another city.
“I enjoy the city life, the buildings, the people, the activities and even the noise, but St. Marys will always be a place to visit family, old friends, go fishing, reminisce and enjoy the scenery.”