Employee Spotlight: Sarah Ulmer, Principal of the Richmond Therapeutic Day School

Sarah Ulmer began her career at Grafton in 2012 as a special education teacher. In June 2019, she became the Principal of Richmond’s therapeutic day school. An education specialist, she holds an EdS in curriculum and instruction with a specialization in special education, a master’s in teaching special education, and is currently obtaining a doctorate degree in curriculum and instruction for special education.

Why did you want to work in behavioral healthcare?

I’ve always had a passion for working in education and with students with special needs. It started when I was a senior in high school and took courses where I visited different schools and classrooms to help out with some of the kids. That experience led me into teaching, and I really wanted to focus on students that needed the most help. Early in my career, I went to a conference on education and they talked about how we, as educators, can help students reach their potential, and that our job is to plant the seed to help students grow. That really inspired me to focus my career path on helping students succeed to their full potential.

Why are Grafton’s clients unique?

Grafton’s clients come with a whole array of their own special challenges but also their own special strengths. We can help students that struggle with being successful in other settings. We’re able to witness those little light bulb moments when they succeed at something – even if it’s something small – and it’s amazing to see.

What makes Grafton a special place to work?

From my experience, it really is special because of the trauma-informed approach Grafton uses to work with the students and to train the staff. Being restraint free is amazing, because there are so many other places that still use restraints.

Another thing that makes Grafton special is really seeing the opportunities for professional growth within the company, and what you can do if you really want to. There’s always areas you can expand in, to learn, to grow. I have found that Grafton is willing and able to give those experiences to those who want it.

How has utilizing a trauma-informed approach informed you and affected your work?

Using it changes your perspective on the students that we serve, on how you interact with them, and even how you interact with other people in your day-to-day life. You start thinking about what else could be going on that could have this person responding in a specific way. As an administrator, I use the approach with staff – reminding myself to consider what else could be going on in their lives that’s making them have a bad day or a good day. It makes you aware.

What type of training, guidance, and support have you received that helps you do your job?

Definitely the trauma-informed approach helps and the Ukeru focus of building positive relationships with other people. Also, all the mentorship I’ve gotten from other individuals that work at Grafton. We are really working to be collaborative with each other and use each other as resources. If we have questions or are learning something new, there’s a good team that’s willing to help out with whatever is going on.

Do you have a favorite story from your time at Grafton?

I was an elementary and middle school teacher when I first started at Grafton, so I got to work directly with the students on a daily basis and see their growth. Some of the students I had when I first started are now in the high school classrooms, and it’s very cool to see how much they’ve grown, not only physically but also in terms of their independence, their skills, and their ability to venture into the community on a weekly basis. Seeing those changes over time with students is my overall favorite story.

What do you like about working at Grafton versus other places you’ve worked?

I love working here. Teamwork and the willingness for other people to help you is a big plus. Working this job is never boring. There’s always something going on, but it is so rewarding to see those small victories and areas of growth for students. During the time I’ve been here, the program has grown and changed. Even the way we work with kids has changed to be more trauma-informed, more therapeutic, and restraint free. It is really great to see, especially coming from other places I’ve worked that used restraints and were not as trauma-informed.

What would you say to a family considering Grafton for their child?

It’s a positive place for students to come where they really can be focused on as individuals and treated with care and respect as a person. We emphasize functional skills for individuals to live their best life. At Grafton, students have the opportunity to be successful when they haven’t been in the past. Our ultimate goal is to encourage as much independence and success as possible for each individual, whether that means getting a student back into public school, back in the home, or to a lesser restrictive environment.