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21 November 2018

Changing the focus

by Berton Woodward

John LaPorta likes to tell the story of a little girl named Jenna whom he came upon in the Thames Valley Children’s Centre daycare early in his 24-year tenure there as CEO. Unable to move one side of her body, she lay on the floor crawling in an unending circle. “I had an ‘aha’ moment,” he says. “I realized, that’s what I’m here for—to ensure that this child has the best opportunity to grow and thrive and live her life as much as she possibly can. She became my reference point for every day of my career at the centre.”

Nearly a quarter of a century later, Jenna is 26 and thriving, and John has turned the centre into an international beacon of progressive thinking about children with special needs. At Thames Valley he led the creation of what is called the Life Needs Model, based on a family-centred approach that he says has been transformational. “We changed the focus from therapy being the end point to participation and quality of life being the end point.”

What does that mean for treatment? “In the family-centred approach, we’re not the authority—we’re very clear about that,” John explains. “Parents and the kids themselves are the drivers of their care. We can do assessments and offer a range of services for the family, but they select what works best in terms of the knowledge of their child and what’s going on in their life.”

John’s ideas have gained him considerable attention far from the centre’s base in London, Ontario. He has lectured all over the world, from Iceland and Norway to Australia, and published numerous articles and papers. Meanwhile the organization has expanded from a single building in London with 95 staff serving 2,500 patients annually to a $36 million enterprise in 14 locations in the region, with 350 staff supporting fully 9,000 young people each year.

Recently, John announced he would retire in June 2019 after a full 25 years at Thames Valley. It has been a career of fascinating turns. Born and raised in the United States, he gained a sports scholarship in, yes, boxing to the University of Michigan at age 16, but found the environment too overwhelming. He headed across the border to the University of Windsor, meeting his Canadian wife in the process. After gaining a PhD in clinical psychology, he worked in five Toronto institutions serving children and youth before being tapped for Thames Valley.

One of John’s last major efforts is likely to be overseeing a brand change for the centre, designed to reflect the fact that it has expanded beyond the Thames Valley to four other counties in southwestern Ontario. After leaving, he plans to lecture part-time at Western University and Fanshawe College and start a small clinical practice for youth with intellectual limitations and borderline personality disorders. “It’s a niche group that doesn’t have much in the way of resources,” he says. As always, he will be helping those kids grow and thrive.
 Adult and 3 children smiling at camera Dr. LaPorta with Avery, Cooper and Dawson