Amanda Gunter: It’s All About Finding Your Balance
The rust-orange waiting room walls of the Brain Balance Center in Peachtree City are covered with taped-on gold paper stars and trophies. Each one bears a hand-written acknowledgement of a student’s accomplishments. “Worked hard today.” “Wrote an amazing story.” “Great sit-ups!” “Had an I-can attitude.” The center’s students, with neuro-behavioral disorders such as ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome, Autism, Dyslexia, Learning Disabilities and Tourettes Syndrome, are being taught that they can do anything—and as the center’s director, Amanda Gunter, has proven through her own life—they will.
“I was always taught that the sky’s the limit,” Amanda says. “I always believed I could do anything.”
Amanda grew up in a single-parent home. Her mother, Catherine Albeanese, encouraged Amanda’s faith and challenged her to dream big.
“The most important lesson I feel I’ve taught her is to always seek God’s will for your life,” Catherine says. “Then the world is your oyster and you can do anything you put your mind to because with God all things are possible.”
Amanda’s “oyster” began in New Orleans, Louisiana. Catherine and Amanda lived in government housing while Catherine worked and went back to school to become a registered nurse. For the first eight years of Amanda’s life, her mother was in school. Amanda would tag along with her mom to study sessions and even sit in on nursing classes. Amanda remembers being sick on the day of her mother’s graduation.
“You would have thought I was graduating,” Amanda recalls. “I said, ‘Mommy, if I have to ride in a gurney, I will be at the graduation!’”
The determination Amanda showed as an eight-year-old carried over into her high school years when she moved with her mother from Louisiana to Lilburn, Georgia. At Parkview High School, 16-year-old Amanda joined an apprenticeship program for education. She was sure she wanted to be a teacher one day; she just didn’t know what kind.
Amanda’s apprenticeship program assigned her to a school called Jesus in Me Child Development Center. There, Amanda met a twelve-year-old with severe autism named Kelley.
“At the time, I’d never heard of autism,” says Amanda. “But the thing that intrigued me was that you had to figure out how to communicate with her.”
Amanda spent time with Kelley and slowly learned how to communicate with children with autism. That year, Amanda developed an afterschool program that incorporated children with special needs. It was the only afterschool program in the area that accepted children with special needs.
In the first year, Amanda’s afterschool program, called Survival Boot Camp, had six special needs children enrolled. Their disabilities included Autism, Aspergers Syndrome, Downs Syndrome, and emotionally disabled. Amanda began to learn how to interact with and teach children with special needs.
“None of the other workers knew what to do with them, so Amanda was given the challenge,” Catherine remarks. “She would go to the students’ schools and talk to their teachers to see what they were working on so she could follow through after school.”
Amanda’s Survival Boot Camp was also her first experience with writing curriculum. Amanda created and wrote lessons and activities for all children, including the students with special needs. It was a collaborative program that taught the children to work together and embrace each child’s differences. For the first time, Amanda realized she wanted to teach children with disabilities. She changed her career goals from general education to special education.
“I thought, this is the plan God had for me,” Amanda says. “I became passionate about children reaching their optimal potential, academically and socially.”
With that goal in mind, Amanda graduated Parkview High School in 1999. But a large obstacle stood between Amanda and college: finances. “I had to figure out how to pay for college!” she says.
With the belief that nothing is impossible, Amanda set out to find a way to make money. When Amanda received a beautiful necklace with Hebrew scripture written on it as a graduation gift, her plan began to fall into place. Amanda loved the necklace and found a way to contact its creator, all the way in Israel. Amanda learned she could import and sell the handmade jewelry, and she began her own business called Words of Wisdom. She traveled to women’s conferences and events to sell the jewelry and soon had enough money to pay for her first semester at Truett McConnell College.
There she held leadership positions in the Baptist Student Union, Student Professional Association for Georgia Educators, as a Resident Assistant, and as a TMC Ambassador. Amanda continued her work with children with special needs during the summer by teaching children with autism how to swim.
After two years, Amanda transferred to the University of Georgia’s special education program. At UGA, Amanda once again held many leadership positions, including being a member of the state board of the Council of Exceptional Children.
When Amanda graduated from UGA in 2004, she was immediately met with career opportunities.
“I had 11 job offers,” Amanda says. “I wanted the perfect position so I had a list of exactly what I was looking for.”
Amanda found the perfect fit in the Fayette County School system. That year, Fayette County was interested in beginning a pilot program for children with severe autism. The students would stay in a self-contained classroom with the goal to increase communication and decrease inappropriate behaviors.
“I thought, ‘This is exactly what I want to do,’” Amanda says.
So, in 2004, Amanda moved to Fayette County and took a position at Booth Middle School in a program for children with severe autism. The program proved to be a challenge.
“I was exhausted,” Amanda remembers. “We had the most severe children in the county and we were just maintaining calm behavior. I thought there had to be new research with new ideas to improve overall functioning for these children.”
In 2006, Amanda earned a Master’s degree in Moderate Disabilities from Cambridge College, Cambridge, Mass.
In her third year at Booth, Amanda experienced something remarkable. One student in Amanda’s program had a severe case of autism that caused him to aggress toward the staff on an average of 16 times a day. Psychologists and special behavioral experts observed him but could not find a solution to help him eliminate his inappropriate behaviors. The student was on anti-psychotic medications and was still nearly un-teachable. After summer break in 2006, Amanda began the new school year prepared.
“We wore gloves, arm pads and baseball caps,” says Amanda. “We protected ourselves with bean bags to work with the child.”
But to Amanda’s surprise, the student returned with no aggression. He also met his IEP (Individual Education Plan) goals in the first weeks of the school year.
“I thought, what is this?” Amanda says, “they must have changed his meds or something.”
Amanda called the student’s mother to find the source of his remarkable change. The mother explained that the child had attended a Brain Balance program during the summer and had made huge improvements in his behavior and communication.
Amanda could not deny the remarkable change in her student, so she took action and contacted Dr. Peter Scire, who was utilizing hemispheric integration therapy in his practice. Amanda even went with the student to visits with Dr. Scire.
“I began to learn about underdevelopments in the right hemisphere of the brain. This new information made a lot of sense,” Amanda says.
That summer, Amanda made the difficult decision not to return to Booth Middle School the next year. Instead, she decided to take a part-time position at the Brain Balance center in Peachtree City.
“I took a part-time position because I was physically and emotionally drained,” Amanda said. “I needed a break from teaching and wanted an environment where I saw true improvement with children. I was tired of seeing gains and then losses. classroom it felt like an unending roller coaster.”
In the summer of 2007 Amanda found herself at a crossroads. She’d just quit a full-time job with benefits to work for a program she’d only seen proven successful for one student. She also realized that children with moderate-to-severe disabilities would not qualify for the original Brain Balance program because it was too difficult to work with children with severe behaviors. During a trip to Israel, Amanda began to question her decisions.
“I prayed, Lord, you have an incredible plan and I want to be able to see children with severe disabilities function at optimal levels,” Amanda said.
Once again, Amanda’s plan fell into place.
“The day I returned from Israel, my prayers were answered,” she says. Dr. Scire called and asked Amanda to help him develop a program for children with moderate disabilities. It would be called Pre Brain Balance and Amanda would help develop the curriculum. The program, which is now established, focuses on sensory motor skills, cognitive skills, and nutrition just like Brain Balance, but goes a step further and focuses on behavior and improving the whole family unit. The Pre Brain Balance program created an opportunity for children with severe disabilities to attend a pre-program that would equip them to succeed in the regular Brain Balance program.
The Pre Brain Balance program began at the Peachtree City Brain Balance facility with 25 students in 2008. Today, Peachtree City, along with an extension location in Suwannee, are the only Pre Brain Balance locations in the nation. Amanda sees families from all over the world come to Fayette County for the program.
“We have families from Guatemala, Canada, and Lebanon. We also have families coming from England and Saudi Arabia,” Amanda says.
In 2008, Amanda became director of the entire Peachtree City facility, including the Pre Brain Balance and Brain Balance programs.
“My passion is to reclaim this generation and give hope and future to these children so they can be anything they want to be, they can have the sky as their limit, just as I have experienced,” Amanda says.
Amanda’s passion has translated into improving the personal lives of countless families. Kim Sushil recently enrolled her 10-year-old son, Timothy, in Brain Balance. Timothy struggled with emotional outbursts and did not interact well with others, but after a few short months with Brain Balance, Timothy was able to join a baseball team and participate in his first team sport.
“He described himself as more mature and able to handle things better,” Kim says.
Jill-Marie Evans, another Brain Balance mother, saw significant improvement in her son’s life thanks to the Brain Balance program.
“Our son was diagnosed at the age of eight as falling within the autism spectrum as ‘high-functioning’ with a brain age of five to seven years old in some areas,” Jill-Marie explains.
Amanda was confident that within two three-month Brain Balance sessions, he would function at his typical brain age level.
“Like many of the families that attend Brain Balance, we relocated out of state to be near this facility, mostly because of Amanda,” says Jill-Marie.
Jill-Marie and her family moved from Massachusetts to Peachtree City for her son. After the six-month program and the additional home programming, Jill-Marie says her son is “functioning astoundingly.”
“He is no longer considered to be on the autism spectrum,” she says. “He has gone from his original diagnosis of performing in the lower one percentile of his grade level to an average of 82 percent!”
Amanda continues to further her education in order to increase her understanding of the brain. She attends classes taught by Brain Balance founder Dr. Robert Melillo and seeks advice from her mentor, Diane Hartman.
“I have found Amanda to be unusually honest about struggles and incredibly quick to change anything in her life that stands in the way of becoming what she was created to be,” Diane says.
Though her achievements so far have been many, Amanda still strives to be everything she was created to be. Her dream is to one day open a Brain Balance in Israel and continue to live out her passion of seeing disabilities decrease and unlimited potential increase. For now, Amanda has forever touched the lives of many.
The Story of Amanda’s Necklace
Amanda purchased her necklace from Rahab’s Rope, a nonprofit organization based in Gainesville that helps women in India rebuild their lives. Rahab’s Rope was founded in 2004 after a Hall County woman, Vicki Moore came across some unforgettable statistics on the internet: every day in India, approximately 200 women and girls are forced into the commercial sex trade, while every year over four million women and children around the world are trafficked into prostitution and slave labor.
Vicki, a devout Christian, prayed for a way to help them, and the outcome was Rahab’s Rope Women’s Center which, according to their website, is “a place that provides food, shelter and protection; a place of education and training; a place where the whole person is ministered to spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and financially. It is a place of hope, a place of transformed lives.”
Rahab’s Rope has a center in Bangalore, India, where women who’ve been forced into the sex trade have the opportunity to rebuild their lives, first by being sheltered and nurtured, then by learning vocational skills. One means of raising funds and awareness is through the women’s handcraft, which includes beautiful gift items, bags of various styles and sizes, home décor and—of course— jewelry. The items are sold both in-store (downtown Gainesville) and online. To learn more about the important work that Vicki and her supporters are doing, or to purchase your own necklace with a special story, visit www.rahabsrope.com.
How Does Brain Balance Work?
Brain Balance starts at the source of any neurobehavioral disorder—the brain. The program begins by analyzing each child to find where the under-developments are in the brain. They test more than 1,200 different areas of the brain looking for underdevelopments which can cause auditory or visual processing deficits and many other symptoms.
“If the brain age is five but the child is eight, they probably act like a five-year-old,” Amanda explains. “It is very helpful for parents to see what brain age their child is functioning at.”
The program then uses sensory motor and cognitive exercises to strengthen the weak portions of the child’s brain. Each exercise is designed to focus on one side of the brain.
“It is either underdevelopment in the right or left hemisphere of the brain that is causing the imbalance,” Amanda says. “One side will be weaker than the other.”
The child completes a series of exercises, from walking on a balance beam to sit-ups, and eye exercises that improves ocular motor skills. After thirty minutes of sensory motor exercises, students complete another thirty minutes of cognitive exercises in a classroom setting. Brain Balance students attend the center for one hour, three days a week for three months. The Brain Balance method is so effective that results show students improving two years in their brain age in only three months.
Brain Balance is supported by current brain research which says that under-connectivity in the brain causes a disconnect between the two hemispheres of the brain.
Brain Balance’s program has been the subject of outcome studies that document 100% of the students making functional changes, 60% of them losing their diagnosis in ADHD, and 40% showing a two grade academic increase in three months of programming. An additional 40% showed a four grade academic increase in three months. The research article concludes that Brain Balance makes statistically significant changes in a child’s brain.