Recently, 4-and-a-half-year-old Giani Rizzo, of Williamsville, came scampering into the brightly-decorated classroom of the Mercy Speech Center to be greeted by Sister Maralynn Sciarrino, RSM, with a smile, hug and welcoming words.
"He is so cute," the director said to the boy's mother, Lynn Rizzo.
Soon, Sister Maralynn sat the youngster through a variety of fun exercises and games aimed at improving his speech. One could easily see the ease of relationship that developed to foster her student's learning. At one point, Sister Maralynn, at 82, sat on the floor to play a game with the youngster, who delighted in the interaction.
"He loves coming here," said Rizzo. "Sister Maralynn is so good with him. She makes it all fun and is so positive and affirming."
Rizzo was among those parents saddened to hear that Sister Maralynn was weeks away from retiring, in June, after 49 years of directing the center. Sister Catherine Hunt, RSM, Sister Maralynn's administrative assistant, also retired from her post after 23 years. As a result of the retirements, the Mercy Speech Center, on Abbott Road in South Buffalo, closed permanently this past summer.
Sister Maralynn entered the Sisters of Mercy in Buffalo in 1952 at age 18. She taught elementary school for several years and, beginning in 1962, spent weekends with a group of sisters, working with then-director Sister Juliana Jackson at the Mercy Speech Center, founded by Sister Maureen Kelly in 1956, to help children overcome speech difficulties. Of the group, Sister Maralynn was the only who seemed to be drawn to it.
She spent five summers studying speech therapy at Catholic University of America in Washington plus an additional year, thanks to a grant from the National Institutes of Health. She earned a master's degree in speech pathology and audiology in 1968.
"I didn't even know what a speech pathologist was when I started," she laughed.
But now, after what she terms "2,700 success stories," Sister Maralynn has decided it is now time to spend her time as a volunteer, rocking newborn babies at nearby Mercy Hospital.
According to its mission statement, the Mercy Speech Center ministered primarily to children whose speech and language disorders "necessitate professional evaluation, subsequent speech therapy and/or language therapy." The center worked with students between the ages of 4-and-a-half years through high school. Most are in the second-through-eighth grades and have been diagnosed with central auditory processing disorders or speech production disorders. Some adults also have taken advantage of the center's services.
Over the years, basic speech therapy has been combined with literacy. At the Mercy Speech Center, it was called the Magic Penny Program. "It has gone from working with sounds to the literacy part of it," according to Sister Maralynn. "It takes into consideration spelling, the ability to write, to hear something, comprehend it and write it down on paper."
She noted that the program takes the best from the old and integrates it with the new.
"It's fantastic to watch students in the program and see their faces when the light goes on for them. There is such a need for this in schools," she said.
At its height, the Mercy Speech Center worked with 80 students a year when Sister Maralynn was full-time. In recent years, she helped about 25 students a year working part-time. Now that the center is closed, students in the program will go to Buffalo Hearing and Speech Center or to similar programs in local schools.
Sister Maralynn's work even caught the attention of Rep. Brian Higgins, of New York's 26th Congressional District, who surprised her in June by personally delivering to her the words he entered into the Congressional record just days before.
The following is an excerpt from his extension of remarks from June 28:
"Mr. Speaker, I rise today to recognize Sister Maralynn Sciarrino as she steps down from her position as director of the Mercy Speech Center after 49 extraordinary years of service. Sister Maralynn's skill as a speech pathologist and her caring presence provided countless children from Western New York with the skills and the confidence necessary to be articulate and successful in school and life."
"I have had the best career going with all of the children," she said. Sister Maralynn still maintains friendships with former students and will miss seeing young, excited faces when that spark of learning is recognized. But, she said, it's time to move on to something new.
"It's good to go out on top," she said.
And there are babies waiting to be rocked.