Upward for Children and Families: Helping the Most Vulnerable


Founded more than 50 years ago and located in central Phoenix, Upward for Children and Families (UPWARD) has been consistently dedicated to a simple yet powerful purpose —  to see past a child’s disability, recognize their unique abilities, and do everything possible to ensure these children and their families thrive through education, therapy and loving care. UPWARD is dedicated to serving severely disabled and/or medically fragile children and their families.

Due to a passionate commitment to this calling over the past five decades, UPWARD has become the primary provider of special education, therapy and childcare for children with severe disabilities for many school districts located throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area.


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I knew little of this when asked to serve on the UPWARD Board of Directors a few years back. But it’s certainly hard to find fault in a mission that is dedicated to helping children with special needs achieve their highest potential, while empowering their families. One visit to the Phoenix campus and its welcoming environs is more than enough to tug at the heart strings and to witness first-hand the commitment and dedication of the UPWARD staff to serving the most vulnerable in our community.

UPWARD provides a full range of pediatric outpatient therapies in five distinct disciplines, to children with developmental disabilities as follows:

  1. Occupational therapy.
  2. Physical therapy.
  3. Speech & language therapy.
  4. Feeding/swallowing therapy.
  5. Music therapy.

UPWARD’s therapy rooms are full of bright colors, great shapes, and an all-around comfortable feeling that provides a stable foundation for the learning and development that ensues. Children play and learn on a variety of equipment and are taught and nurtured by loving, compassionate and devoted therapists committed to improving an individual child’s view of the world, and their own role within it.


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Pediatric occupational therapy is a form of therapy in which the therapist and child work to develop or improve the necessary skills for daily living through activity. Therapy can target skills needed for coordination, school readiness and performance, self-help such as feeding, dressing and grooming, safety, focus and attention, play/social interaction, eye-hand coordination, calming and regulatory behaviors and more.

UPWARD utilizes a variety of treatment approaches, one of which is sensory processing – the ability of the brain and the body to take incoming sensory information and create an efficient motor output. UPWARD therapists develop appropriate home activities and family education in addition to direct treatment of children entrusted to its care.

At UPWARD, occupational therapists help children in need do the following:

  • Improve their sensitivity toward their environment.
  • Improve fine and gross motor skills.
  • Learn to calm themselves and improve focus.
  • Develop socially and improve their play / interaction skills.
  • Developself-care skills.
  • Function with greater independence.
  • Better transition in a changing environment.

Upon entry to UPWARD, a child is evaluated and assessed in those areas in which they may have difficulty functioning. After an initial evaluation, UPWARD’s professional therapists will make an evaluation of their findings using a combination of standardized tests, observations, and/or clinical expertise.


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UPWARD’s pediatric physical therapists help to ensure that a child’s physical performance in everyday activities is at its peak. Therapists rely on the implementation of their expert knowledge of the neurological, musculoskeletal, cardiopulmonary, and integumentary (skin) systems to help children in any one of the following ways:

  • Achieve age-appropriate developmental milestones.
  • Better participate in age-appropriate school activities with peers.
  • Improve range of motion, strength, mobility, posture, balance, endurance for independent function.
  • Improve a child’s ability to independently negotiate their environment.
  • Actively participate and contribute to the society at large.

Pediatric feeding therapy is a combination of treatments that help children with feeding disorders.  A child with a feeding disorder has difficulties related to eating or drinking. There are many different types of feeding challenges, and no two children present quite the same.

For example, some children do not independently eat anything. These children may be fed through tubes. Some children eat very little and do not gain weight or grow. Others do not have a healthy or balanced diet because they only eat a few or certain kinds of foods. In some cases, a child may have behavioral problems during meals that cause mealtime to be very stressful for the family. Other children have problems chewing or swallowing.  Finally, medical problems such as vomiting may play a role in a child’s feeding disorder.

UPWARD’s feeding clinic helps children learn proper meal-time behavior, decrease the fear of food, learn chewing and swallowing techniques, and develop a tolerance for a variety of foods including accepting foods of different textures, scents, and flavors.

From birth, music can have a profound effect on the growth and development of children. Music can soothe and pacify, promote learning and offer a sense of security and is utilized in many capacities to help children at UPWARD.

UPWARD’s highly trained music therapists use music to help children reach their physiological, emotional, cognitive and social goals,  utilizing  a variety of techniques, including songwriting, lyric analysis and substitution, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, live music making, improvisation and music education. When utilized effectively, music therapy can help children: improve their attention span and fine and gross motor skills as well as enhancing their vocal chords and hand-eye coordination.

While UPWARD’s focus is primarily children, even children with disabilities grow up. Although those now young adults may age-out of a special education or pediatric therapies program, they nevertheless continue to need help more than ever – to maintain their sense of security, and to continue the growth and development they have achieved as children.

Consistent with those needs, UPWARD’s Day Treatment and Training for Adults program allows adults to develop to their full potential in independence and life skills. By focusing on individual, social, and occupational skills development, UPWARD  makes learning “fun” through a wide variety of interesting and innovative activities, grounded by practical skill practices.

Ably led by Chief Executive Officer Doug Carter, Vice President of Programs, Sharon Graham, President of the Board of Directors, Jos Anshell and a dedicated staff, UPWARD’s Board of Directors is diverse and brings passion and energy to benefit the most needy in our community. I’m honored to be a part of it.

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