We had the good fortune of connecting with Helene Prokesch and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Helene, can you share the most important lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career?
The most important lesson is to recognize what you do not know and surround yourself with lifelines who can fill in those gaps. Trust others who can provide valuable input on what the organization needs to be successful. Also, it is crucial to act on those suggestions. You can have all the best advice in the world, but it means nothing if you don’t act on it and get the job done.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
I worked as a special education teacher of children with physical and cognitive disabilities in Fulton County Schools. Seven years into my teaching career, my nephew, Jeremy was born with Down syndrome. While our family lived in Atlanta, Jeremy’s family lived in Evanston, IL. Jeremy received physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and also attended the Lekotek in Evanston. My sister-in-law raved about Lekotek and explained that there was nothing like it and that I should start one in Atlanta. Today, more than 37 years after watching my nephew’s play session and being inspired to start Lekotek of Georgia, I am more passionate about Lekotek than I was when I first started. We are truly unique; there is nothing like Lekotek. I’m most proud of helping children gain a sense of self-esteem and understand they can experience success. We use adaptive toys and technology so kids can be included in their families, schools and communities and have been successfully doing that day in day out for thousands of families over the years. The biggest source of pride for me are our Lektoek graduates who are at college, working – either in the corporate world or in a sheltered environment – because they’re included and living out our mission. Sadly, there are only a handful of Lekotek organizations still operating in the U.S. today, six of which are operated by Lekotek of Georgia. We are fortunate that the Atlanta community is incredibly philanthropic. We have a tremendous number of corporations and foundations who have supported us over the years and are so appreciative of the community’s continued support as we strive to make a difference for every child who needs Lekotek. Our families need us now more than ever. We have not missed a beat during the pandemic, conducting zoom sessions and doing in-person sessions where we can be safe and use masks. However, we’re dependent on corporate, individual and foundation support, and we know the needs of the community are greater than ever right now due to COVID-19. A large portion of our annual funding also comes from three major special events: a Brewfest, a golf tournament, and a run. We are adapting those events wherever we can. For example, our annual run/walk will be held virtually this year from Nov. 1 to Nov. 8. A virtual run/walk is like a traditional run/walk—friendly competition, t shirts, finish line selfies—only you pick the route. And what time to wake up! We are doing everything we can to continue to meet annual budgets to serve approximately 800 kids annually at six different Lekotek locations.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I would go to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights because, as a person of Jewish descent and having immigrant parents, I believe it is such an important place for everyone to experience. I would also visit the College Football Hall of Fame because I love sports and pride myself on being athletic. And because it’s such a fun, interactive spot!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Sharon Meek, a teacher at the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf, walked into the basement of Easter Seals’ – our first home – and asked if she could work at Lekotek. Having only enough funding for a part-time position, Sharon joined the staff as a Lekotek leader, conducting play sessions three days a week. During one-hour play sessions, Lekotek leaders model the creative use of the toys and computer equipment for each child. Families are encouraged to use the toys, computers and iPads to create a playful and educational environment at home. Sharon was truly a visionary. She was a tech guru in the 1980s and orchestrated a donation of Apple IIs from Apple. That was a pivotal point in our history because initially, the Lekotek inventory consisted of toys only. With that donation from Apple in 1988, we moved from a toy lending library to a toy/technology lending library with computers and continued to add technology such as iPads, eye gaze technology, and now having a full sensory room at our newest location in Tucker. I was like a kite with a tail. Sharon was the kite flying, and I was holding onto the tail. I get the credit because I was the founder, but when Sharon left, I realized I had to become the visionary. Also, there wouldn’t be a Lekotek of Georgia if not for my nephew, Jeremy, who had Down syndrome and inspired me to start Lekotek in 1989.