Today we’d like to introduce you to Barbora Hladek.
Barbora, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I grew up in the former Czechoslovakia and came to America after high school. Ever since I remember, I always struggled with social skills. I guess the transition made it a little less obvious because people here just assumed my social awkwardness was a part of my culture.
Several years ago, I was working as a special needs teacher. It was during this time that my five-year-old daughter started to struggle with behavior and social communication. After a few incorrect diagnoses and unnecessary medications which increased her current issues and added few new ones, she was finally diagnosed with High Functioning Autism, ADHD, and a mood disorder at age 6.5.
In order to devote more time to her needs, I quit my job as a teacher and became a Behavioral Health Support Specialist. That’s when I realized that there were many other children and young adults who were also having trouble with social communication and the day to day skills of coping with the rest of the world. Based on my experience with my daughter (the younger version of myself), I found there were few resources available to help those who struggle with social skills and social cognition and social communication.
In order to help my daughter, I decided to learn everything I could about social cognition and social skills. As I began using my newly acquired knowledge, I noticed immediately what a positive difference it made. It was during this time that I met Susie Turrey. Her son also has a diagnosis of autism and struggled with social skills. We both had the same passion for social cognition and realized that we could help others, as well as our own children, who were struggling socially. Susie became my business partner and this shared passion became our focus at Unicorn Haven.
Unicorn Haven was originally established to provide habilitation and respite services for the special needs community, but as we were in the process of getting approved by the Division of Developmental Disabilities, we found a new passion that eventually became our new focus. We started the Unicorn Haven Social Cognition groups in November 2018.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Starting the business has not been easy. Susie and I both have worked very hard to get where we are now. It was difficult for us to abandon our contract with the Division of Developmental Disabilities because we had been working on it for over a year, however, we had to change our direction in order to follow our passion.
Once we had our social cognition groups up and running smoothly, increased our client base, and started getting recognition in the community, we were finally on our way to making a small profit. Then COVID-19 happened. Because we had to close down our in-person classes, we no longer had a source of income and had to vacate our office since we could no longer afford the rent.
We also suffered other setbacks. We had just recently started Social Acting with our incredible acting coach Cher Higgins and the classes were amazing! Unfortunately, we had to postpone them until they are safe to be held in-person.
I was accepted into the Social Thinking Intensive Clinical Training Program which was postponed due to COVID-19 as well.
With all of our learning now virtual and our new reality, we had to adapt and learn how to make our classes as effective as they were in-person. It is not easy to teach social classes through ZOOM, however with some interactive additions to the curriculum we have created a very successful online program. One of the skills we often work on with our clients is flexible thinking. This is the most important skill we use every day in running this business.
Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Unicorn Haven – what should we know?
People always ask us how we came up with the name Unicorn Haven. The unique name comes from my daughter’s love for unicorns and me wanting a safe place and a comfortable learning environment for children and adults with social challenges. The other reason unicorns are so significant to us is because they are magical and mysterious creatures – much like the individuals we serve. Every one of them is unique with so much to contribute to the world.
Unicorn Haven offers social cognition classes for those who struggle with social skills. Not many people in Arizona are aware of social cognition and what an important part it has in our day to day interactions. Social cognition is the ability to analyze your own thinking process which is necessary to acquire and maintain good social skills. Our students are not born with this ability and have not developed their social skills naturally. They have to work on it. We make it easier by explaining the process and break down all social concepts and teach them in a fun interactive way. This is necessary because social skills play an essential role in a person’s emotional health and well-being. Social skills are needed to learn, ask for help appropriately, get needs met, work well with others, make friends, develop healthy relationships, protect yourself and be able to get along well with others.
The progress our students make is incredible. We have many success stories, and they are almost hard to describe, because once “it clicks” a whole new world opens up. We have children who are able to make and keep friends now, which is a huge accomplishment. We have adults who are able to get along better with their co-workers and understand their boss’s perspectives. We have university students who are now able to advocate for themselves and communicate effectively with their professors. And our biggest successes are the children who struggled with behaviors due to their lack of social skills. They, like many others, would get aggressive and defiant because they were not able to problem solve, see other people’s perspectives, make inferences, or read body language. Now they are aware of all these concepts and adjust their behavior accordingly. I’m very proud of all of our students working so hard to become better versions of themselves.
Because we are small and our classes are limited, we have the ability to get to know our clients and their families on a much more personal level. This gives us the advantage over larger agencies using the same methodology. Susie and I also have the privilege of being special needs parents ourselves which enables us to relate to the various challenges that our clients and their parents face every day.
Our groups are unique in that our classes are taught directly by certified teachers with a lot of Social Thinking® training and experience. Other larger agencies use personnel that is supervised by a certified and trained teacher. We’ve been able to eliminate that extra layer.
We offer a sliding scale for our clients to accommodate those who can’t afford to pay the full price. Recently, we introduced the “Sponsor a Student” option where others are able to donate funds to pay for a student who would not otherwise be able to afford our services.
Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
Absolutely. I had the support and encouragement of my family, friends, and other special needs moms. Our client’s parents have been amazing and it always melts my heart when they share how we helped their children/ young adults.
- 8-week sessions $400 (sliding scale options)
- Empowerment Scholarships (ESA) accepted
- Sponsor a Student option
- Website: www.unicornhaven.org
- Phone: 602.909.3223
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: unicorn_haven_az
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/UnicornHavenAZ