Illinois State graduate student Colleen Kickbush is fond of a line from the late Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood fame. When Rogers was a boy and got frightened by a tragic news story his mother comforted him by telling him to “look for the helpers.”
“It’s one of my favorite quotes because I’m a helper,” Kickbush said.
An Illinois native, Kickbush, 34, lives in Milwaukee with her husband, Matthew, and their 5-year-old son, James. The couple met as undergraduates at Northern Illinois University, and both are now teachers of the visually impaired. He works for the Milwaukee Public Schools, and she works for Vision Forward Association, a nonprofit that serves clients with vision loss from birth to the end stages of life.
Kickbush will graduate in May from Illinois State University with a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis on early intervention for children with sensory disabilities. Her path was forged back in high school.
“My mother, Nancy Curtis, is a paraprofessional who works with kids with multiple disabilities,” Kickbush said. “When I was in high school I shadowed her. I knew I wanted to be a special ed teacher, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do until I saw her help a blind student who was super smart. He just needed to borrow her eyes.”
As an early intervention specialist for children ages birth to 3, Kickbush focuses on helping parents who may have never been around a visually impaired person until the birth of their child. Kickbush said early intervention and early literacy are crucial since 90 percent of learning is visual and can impact all areas of education. She is particularly concerned about outreach to clients in rural areas.
“The first thing I do is bring two or three tactile books to them,” she said. “They may not know about books otherwise.”
Kickbush participates in the LIMITLESS program, which was started in the summer of 2020 thanks to a $1.23 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education awarded to Illinois State University Special Education Professors Dr. Maribeth Lartz and Dr. Mindy Ely. The grant assists students who plan to work with young blind or deaf children and their families.
LIMITLESS is a two-year, interdisciplinary program designed to address the national and statewide shortage of early intervention practitioners. It helps students incorporate special education and speech-language pathology courses into their training. The program inspired Kickbush to begin several dream projects before graduating.
Kickbush initiated a task force to address the current limits of services for infants and toddlers in Wisconsin and helped expand her agency’s outreach to the same population. She started Wisconsin’s participation in Babies Count, a national registry that tracks infants and toddlers with visual impairments. As the group’s coordinator, she’s trained hundreds of Wisconsin birth-to-3 providers. She is working to implement a functional visual screening tool (adapting the tool used by Ely) to replace one that’s currently used in Wisconsin. In addition, she has lobbied her state’s legislature, including providing testimony, to pass Assembly Bill 490, which would create a registry for children with blindness or visual impairment.
“I had a busy year last year, but I made a lot of progress,” Kickbush said.
Ely described Kickbush as curious, engaged, and a “rock star” who caused everyone around her to think more deeply.
“She took what she was learning and applied it directly to her work and then went to her state-level policymakers to challenge them to make Wisconsin better at serving babies with visual impairments and their families,” Ely said. “It is exciting to see real outcomes for children and families as a result of the learning that occurred in our program. Colleen’s passion and diligence have led to important change. As an instructor, I could not ask for anything more.”
Kickbush said she couldn’t have been successful in the classroom without the support of her husband who made it possible for her to study and never worry about the care their son was getting from his “wonderful father.”
She’s grateful for her colleagues at Vision Forward and for her professors at Illinois State, noting that she didn’t do any of this on her own. She said Lartz and Ely taught her to feel more competent and confident. She also said a pivotal moment came when Ely brought in a guest speaker, DeEtte Snyder from the Washington State School for the Blind, who later inspired Kickbush to launch Babies Count in Wisconsin. And, Dr. Kim Fisher, principal investigator on her research study, helped her become a better researcher.
“It’s my job and my life and what I love to do,” Kickbush said. “I’m very blessed to have found the one thing I love to do. I want every baby and child who has a vision loss—and their families—to get the help they need when they need it.”
This story is one of a series of profiles on Redbirds who are graduating this May. For more information about how Illinois State is celebrating commencement this semester, visit the Graduation Services website.