Thriving Through Ongoing Care and Connection

By Carrie Rulli

My time with Natalie has been the single most positive habit I’ve developed as a young adult. It’s a testament to the power of spending time together, even when few words are spoken.” —Julianne Olivieri

Two Saint Mary’s students are learning that experience is the best teacher through their unique relationship with an 8-year-old South Bend girl.

Julianne Olivieri ’17 and Anna Mullek ’19, MS ’22 have been working with Natalie Jordanich and her family for the past five years through a practicum course offered to undergraduate students interested in working with children diagnosed with autism. The home-based, hands-on therapy they provide has helped Natalie’s growth, enhanced their studies, and created deep connections between them all.  

Mullek knew she wanted to work with special needs patients from a young age. Her sister’s Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis at age 3 sparked her interest, but work with local families—Ed and Julia Jordanich’s, in particular—solidified her passion. 

“Working with Natalie has taught me the importance of targeting functional skills for her independence,” said Mullek, who is a dual degree student pursuing a master’s in autism studies and a master’s in speech language pathology. She spends 20 hours a week with the Jordanich family.

“Natalie is non-speaking and requires a high level of support, but it’s important for me to teach her how to do things, rather than simply completing tasks for her out of convenience,” she said.

Student Olivieri with child, Natalie

Olivieri also knew when she was young that she would make a career out of working with children who have disabilities. She started an adaptive physical education course in high school, helping student athletes train for the local Special Olympics, among other activities and internships since then. She fully realized just how much her interest in working within the autism community fit her and her goals when she began working with the Jordanich family. It led to her participation in a program that conducts focus groups for local area college-aged students with autism, For Understanding Neurodevelopment (FUN), founded by Joshua Diehl, PhD, Saint Mary's faculty fellow and chief program officer at LOGAN Center. 

“Before meeting Natalie, I knew I wanted to work with children with disabilities but I didn’t know in what context or how,” she said. “I know now.” 

The Jordanich family met Olivieri in 2016, during her junior year at Saint Mary’s, as they sought help for Natalie through LOGAN Center, a South Bend-based organization that provides support, resources and opportunities for people with disabilities. It didn’t take long for Olivieri to realize she was receiving as much as she was giving. She continues to commute from Chicago, where she completed her master’s degree at Northwestern University, to South Bend on the weekends to help Natalie. She has even joined the family for vacations, taking a break from her work as a behavior therapist and respite worker for children with disabilities. Olivieri plans to pursue her doctoral degree in behavior analysis.

Even though the kind of close care Mullek and Olivieri provide is considered informal, it has helped Natalie make great strides, Julia said.

“Natalie requires 24-hour supervision and is non-verbal, but because of Julianne and Anna’s efforts to work with her in areas including communication with an augmentative device, social skills, and physical skills, we have seen amazing progress,” she said.

Mullek said they consult with the family on the importance and relevance of Natalie’s target goals to her daily life based on the applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy Natalie receives. “We obviously work on different things than she does at school, but we do so with the support of Julia or Ed in the home setting,” she said. “This can make a huge difference. Both Julianne and I have worked as registered behavior technicians for ABA therapy, so we are adequately able to work with Natalie in her familiar surroundings.”

Balancing careers and raising their three daughters—Lauren, Mia and Natalie—the days are hectic for Ed and Julia, with Natalie’s care as the focal point of their daily schedules. The entire family has benefitted from the students being a part of their life.

“These young women have helped us expand our world, which mostly revolves around Natalie,” Ed said. “The emotional maturity, compassion, and creativity we see from Julianne and Anna has been an incredible blessing for our family.”

Mullek and Olivieri are the two most recent students who have worked with Natalie as they completed or advanced their degrees. Three other Saint Mary’s students have come into their home and their lives over the years to assist with Natalie. Julia calls it a huge blessing that Saint Mary’s has given them. They’ve connected with students over the years through Saint Mary’s faculty fellow Joshua Diehl, LOGAN Center’s chief program officer for child and adolescent services, and Kristin Wier, adjunct professor of the autism practicum course. 

“The relationships and the collaboration we’ve done together with Saint Mary’s is so valuable, from research to sharing resources,” Wier said. “I’m honored to be involved with the faculty and students.”

Wier has been a part of the course and placing students with local families for the past 17 years. When she learned about the professional goals and specific interests of Mullek and Olivieri, she knew they would be a perfect fit for the Jordanich family.

“We really hit the jackpot with Anna and Julianne. They threw their hearts into it from the beginning, and I know the family and Natalie feel that,” she said.

Olivieri has learned more than she anticipated through her work outside the classroom. 

“Though it might seem basic, I learned the power in showing up. Our weekly routine allowed Natalie to see me as a constant in her life, and she slowly began to open up to me in ways I had not anticipated,” she said. “My time with Natalie has been the single most positive habit I’ve developed as a young adult. It’s a testament to the power of spending time together, even when few words are spoken.”

Julia said she has loved all of the students and their care over the years. But having two consistent, longer-term care providers has been critical to her and to Natalie. Relaxation is rare, but when Mullek and Olivieri are with her family, she said she can actually take deep breaths. 

“Julianne and Anna have changed our lives,” she said. “They have become part of our family and we’re so fortunate that Saint Mary’s brought them into our world.”

The feelings of gratitude and good fortune are mutual for Mullek and Olivieri, especially during the past year and the global pandemic when Natalie and her family were nearly the only people Mullek saw in person. 

“It’s incredible to witness her learning and developing, and especially cool to see her accomplish things that I started targeting with her, like eating with a fork or wearing a seatbelt in the car,” she said.

Most importantly, I’ve learned the importance of celebrating all the small victories in Natalie’s life.

—Anna Mullek