By JUDY SHERARD

jsherard@dailynews.net

When Debbie Breeden retired last month, it was like leaving family.

Breeden has been an occupational therapist at Hays Area Children's Center and Hays West Central Kansas Special Education Co-op since 1990.

The HACC Part C infant/toddler early intervention services are conducted in a child's natural environment such as homes, day cares or the park, Breeden said.

"We're in people's homes all the time, and that is the part that I have really enjoyed," she said. "When you're in a person's home from when their child is just itty bitty clear up 'til they turn 3, you get to be their friend, but still on a professional basis. You become more attached to that family."

Breeden is a member of the infant/toddler team that includes an early childhood special-education teacher, physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech pathologist, social worker and a nurse.

"It has been a total joy to work with the people that I do," she said.

"Debbie is one of those amazing people with a lifelong goal of helping others," said Kelly O'Brien Koerner, HACC community relations coordinator. "She has a generous and caring spirit in addition to her expertise in occupational therapy; her willingness to help families, staff and our community has endeared her to everyone she meets."

As an occupational therapist, she looks at fine motor skills -- feeding, eating and other self-care skills, visual-motor skills and sensory processing.

Breeden spends one day a week working for the special-ed co-op.

"When a child turns 3, we support the child at school," Breeden said. "The goal is to help them be as successful as possible in the least restrictive environment possible."

Breeden has spent much of her career working with young children.

It's been "very satisfying, very fulfilling. I would not have rather done anything else."

When she started her career, "all the kids with special needs came to a special school. That was before research said that children do better in their home schools, their neighborhood schools."

Breeden said she'll miss the children and people she's worked with, but she's looking forward to retirement.

She and her husband, David, are moving to Oklahoma in the fall to be near their son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.

Her daughter and family who live in Hays are missionaries and will be going back into the mission field.

"So we need to live in Oklahoma and be near an airport," Breeden said.