A career of serving others coming to a close

By Mike Wade
NRVCS Community Relations Specialist

The end of September will mark the conclusion of a human services career that has spanned more than four decades. While only the past 17 years have been spent at NRVCS as supervisor of the Early Intervention program, Joan Behl’s work has impacted the lives of countless individuals and families throughout the New River Valley and beyond.

“I have some mixed emotions but I suppose it’s time,” Behl says of her pending retirement. “I’ve pretty much been working with babies for the past 47 years, so there are bound to be other things that I can do.”

A Blacksburg native, Behl had initially planned to earn a doctorate and spend her career doing research – similar to other members of her family. She left the area shortly after graduating from Virginia Tech to obtain her master’s from Western Michigan University (WMU) and her professional ambitions soon took a different path.

After completing her course work at WMU, Behl’s first job was at an intermediate school program for children with disabilities, specifically addressing the needs of infants. During that time, Behl and her first husband – the manager of a group home for adults – fostered four children who were transitioning out of the state hospital.

“It was a busy and very interesting time in our lives,” recalls Behl, “and obviously, I was able to learn a great deal about the needs of persons with disabilities.”

She eventually moved to Springfield, Illinois and took a position as a child development specialist, providing home-based services and performing intakes for a classroom-based program that was very similar to her current work with the Early Intervention program. (Early Intervention supports families of infants and toddlers who have been diagnosed with developmental delays and disabilities. Services are provided to children from birth to age 3.)

In 1980, Behl and her second husband, Harry, moved back to Blacksburg. After three years as director of a child care center, Behl joined the local Head Start program, where she served as Disabilities Coordinator for 12 years before coming to NRVCS.

“It’s been very rewarding to work with families while their children are young,” says Behl. “If we can get them off to a good start and let them know that there is a system in place to help them, the future of that child – and his or her family – can be so much brighter.”

“It can be a pretty traumatic time for a family if they get a significant diagnosis,” Behl adds, “but we’re fortunate at NRVCS to have a fantastic team of staff who do a great job of helping put things in perspective to give moms and dads real hope that they can see positive outcomes with their child.”

While there may be some similarities among the families she’s worked with over the years, Behl is quick to point out that each situation is unique.

“You truly learn something new from almost every family you work with,” she notes. “Many of the families we work with are low-income so you’re also often helping them overcome the added challenges of issues like poverty, addiction and limited access to resources.”

Most parents would agree that raising a child who doesn’t have disabilities is challenging enough, but for those who do have children with special needs, Behl feels those moms and dads are in a league all their own.

“I really just marvel at their ability to get up every day – knowing what they’re going to be faced with,” remarks Behl. “I have so much respect for these families…Society as a whole doesn’t do right by them, simply because there aren’t enough of us that can appreciate what they are going through.”

Behl feels the expansion of services at NRVCS during her tenure has only enhanced the Early Intervention program.

“We all want what’s best for children and families and our agency has done an amazing job of growing programs,” Behl explains. “There are so many facets to our continuum of services that it’s almost hard to keep up with, but I feel like we’re continually finding ways to meet the needs of the community.”

“The focus we’ve placed on the early childhood piece of case management has been a wonderful option to have,” she adds.

Behl says she is “incredibly proud” of the Early Intervention team she supervises and that she will also miss the part of her job that allowed her to have direct interaction with parents. At the same time, she’s looking forward to the next chapter of her life and what the future holds.

“My plans are really up in the air at this point,” Behl says with a shrug. “I’d like to do some gardening and spend more time with my family…I’m sure I’ll also be looking for volunteer opportunities to get involved with. I definitely can’t just sit at home and do nothing.”