Sonia Taylor-Smith is a woman with a mission. She is making a difference, one student, one family, and sometimes even by one can of soup at a time. She has a fervent wish to help all students accomplish their goals, regardless of differing abilities. That wish sometimes includes the whole family. Meeting her for the first time, one is greeted by a sunny, welcoming smile that exudes not only warmth, but an engaging professionalism perfectly suited to her role. Her optimism is infectious, and her concern for the welfare of students is genuine.
Sonia’s efforts, in which she has worked tirelessly to eliminate barriers between parents and schools, now extends to helping to eliminate the barriers of hunger that some students face. Believing in the “whole-child” approach, Sonia recognizes that “there are often a multitude of reasons that can prevent a child from reaching their optimal level of success.” “I never want a family’s access to food, hygiene, and clothing essentials to be an additional reason as to why they are unable to focus more purposefully on academic success” she says in her mission statement. She also points out that becoming academically and socially proficient as a child is one of the best indicators of adult success. As a mom herself, she can relate to the successes, and the hurdles that students can face.
Sonia is so committed to her goal that she has set up a small pantry on Main Street in downtown Stafford. Stocked with non perishable food and personal hygiene items, it can sometimes make the difference between a hungry student, and one who has had nourishment and is ready to learn. Running on the honor system, the pantry is unlocked- Sonia encourages any who need food or hygiene items to take what they need. The locker-like pantry has been situated near the police station for almost a year now, with donations coming from individuals who want to help, and, if supplies are low, from Sonia’s own pocket. Local merchants have helped by providing drop-off boxes for donations as well during Arts on Main events.
The little pantry is a generous blessing to people in need who may not feel comfortable interfacing with others in this sensitive area. No questions are asked, and individuals can remain anonymous while still getting some assistance with food. A recent improvement includes the addition of a drop off box located in the Town Hall, where people can now drop off donated items at their convenience during business hours.
Sonia’s background of service and outreach with children and families goes back many years. As a young student who struggled, she had help in identifying her strengths, and learned how she could succeed based on that knowledge. From her teens on she knew she wanted to do something that would make a difference in people’s lives, and wished not only to empower students but assist in building a successful life - socially, academically, and morally. She is now an Educational Consultant with her own business which she incorporated in 2013, called, “Ability: Special Education Unlocked LLC.” It is aptly named for the type of service Sonia is providing to her clients. With a Masters in Educational Psychology: Special Education, she has worked extensively with students and their families addressing special needs, instructional strategies, law, ethics in special education, cultural counseling, developing behavioral plans, individual education plans, and much more.
Sonia has been a resident of Stafford for the past nine years, and in addition to her work with the food pantry, she volunteers her time at a local martial arts school, as well as a Child Readiness Council. She is devoted to her mission, and is a woman who not only talks the talk, but WALKS the walk! Professionally, she donates her services as an Education Consultant to one family a year, free of charge, who otherwise would not be able to avail themselves of her services. By doing so she can aid in a student’s ability to make “meaningful progress” and hopefully set patterns of success that will see them through years to come. It is truly a gift that keeps on giving!
One of the jobs she is most proud of is her work with the Office of Protection and Advocacy from 2012-2013, where she was an intern while earning her degree from The University of Connecticut. Her work there has made a difference, as she applied her strength in identifying the needs of clients, collaborating with families on advocacy strategies, helping them to make informed decisions for their children in Special Education. Sonia navigated between legal and educational staff and became a companion guide for families dealing with the often complicated maze of Special Education planning. Along with providing a savvy knowledge of the system she undoubtedly offered a source of comfort to many families.
In her role at OPA she coordinated a series of special education clinics offered by the agency to families across the state. She also worked with a webmaster and the Advocacy for Persons With Mental Illness, devoting a portion of the agency’s website to special ed. and mental health information. This was another tool she developed to aid parents in making good decisions for their children. Her contributions at the agency were many and varied. Sonia has put together transition services to bridge the gap between high school and adulthood for individuals, and has helped in countless other ways, such as managing behavioral challenges within school systems, and collaborating with families on advocacy strategies. In short, she was an invaluable asset to the agency during her internship there.
Sonia’s plans for the future include the possibility of installing food pantries in other towns as well, helping to alleviate hunger and doing whatever she can to help students in their everyday lives. Returning to school to pursue a Doctoral degree may be part of her future plans as well. Whatever she does, she will excel in, and further her cause to create positive learners.
One thing she would fervently like to see change is the way we label, and understand students in Special Education. In hopes of eradicating negative stereotypes, she prefers the term “Differently Abled.” The term is a positive way of viewing how we, as individuals learn. Sonia’s philosophy is based on focusing on a person’s strengths to enhance social and educational proficiency. She expertly helps to establish and support the needs of those she works with.
Armed with not only her formidable educational resources, impressive personal educational history, and years of dedicated commitment to helping children and families, she is a woman making a difference in countless lives. Her energy, vibrant personality, and sincere desire for students to reach their maximum potential is a gift to the community she lives in.