There are days when trying to meet the unique needs of each of our children can feel overwhelming – sometimes even before that first cup of coffee.

Today was not one of those days.  Today I woke up with some cats (Simon & Garfunkel) not giving me enough personal space, and a 9-year-old girl smiling and singing about our solar system.  I knew – even in my sleep deprived state – that our world was just a little bit better than it was yesterday, and I couldn’t help but smile.

Here’s the deal – parenting is amazing, tiring, fun, difficult & emotionally charged – and that’s on the good days.  Throw in a little autism, a pinch of anxiety, a dash of ADHD, etc. and things can get downright dramatic just trying to get through each and every day, let alone thinking about next week, next month’s IEP (gulp) or what adulthood may hold for our children.

Last fall, I was reading a series of articles in our local newspaper about how our state is failing adults with disabilities.  It felt more painful each and every day to learn more about what is happening now for far too many adults with disabilities and what might be for my children and for all young people growing up in Minnesota with disabilities.  One of the stories had a photo of a young man picking up trash with a look of profound sadness and exasperation on his face, and it haunts me to this day.  Had he been happy with his job – no matter what it was – that would be cause for celebration.  But for this young man, trash wasn’t his deal, and his face conveyed too many years of hardship to the point where he knew his voice and his feelings didn’t matter.

It stung, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Even when I wanted to put it out of my mind to focus on the here and now, I found myself waking in the middle of the night and picturing him, realizing it could just as easily be my kids or any of our kids if Tom & I are taken out by a bus, etc.

So over coffee one day with my pals Kelly & Heather (ok in truth, it could have been a margarita) we realized we had all been reading and hearing about these sad stories, and we collectively wanted to do something – anything really – to feel like we were making our own itty bitty dent in this overwhelmingly huge problem.  We’d recently attended a really positive forum in Minneapolis about new and updated special education laws, and felt kind of spunky, so we decided to approach our own Director of Special Education, Mary Kreger, and encourage our district to host something similar, but with our own spin.

For some reason, she agreed to meet with us and we then convinced our friend Jean (one of the Mpls. presenters & amazing parent advocate) and our always incredible and supportive state senators, Jim Carlson and Greg Clausen, to join us, and we all had a lively discussion.  Despite some ugly crying (no – not by the senators – but they’ve seen it from us before), Mary Kreger agreed to host a forum, and that’s how “Community Conversations” came to be.

While we could sense that there was a great deal of buzz about inclusion in our various social media groups, parent groups and talking with pals, we were not sure how many people could be convinced to leave their warm homes and multitude of other responsibilities to attend a forum on a chilly Thursday evening in February in Minnesota.  At 5:45, 15 minutes before start time, we were all a bit stressed – ok some might call it flat out panic.  Having assured Mary Kreger several times that this truly would appeal to a wide audience, we were at that point preparing to apologize to her and drown our sorrows with dozens of cookies and chat inclusion amongst ourselves.

That didn’t happen, as the most amazing mix of people filled that room to capacity and beyond.  Ok, I’m kind of weepy just typing that because it was so enormously cool!

There were a million and one fabulous things that I will carry with me when I think of this event, and while my inner-hippie optimist side is kind of glowing like a lava lamp right now, I have to believe the energy and collaborative spirit from that room have impacted some of the other attendees in unexpected ways as well.

Here’s just a small sampling of some of my highlights –

  • That I got to sit by my pal during the panel discussion (another Elliott with 2 l’s and 2 t’s) and listen to him share his story, inspire the audience and then point out the awesome disco ball on the ceiling that I never would have noticed on my own. He’s awesome!
  • That our Superintendent, Jane Berenz, chose to attend, address the audience and share that she got her start as a Special Educator – how cool is that? She was warm and approachable and stayed the entire time mingling with people, listening and learning.
  • That Kelly, who worked tirelessly to obtain donations for fun treats and coffee, had a great conversation with a local Hy-Vee manager who shared with her their proud history of employing individuals with a wide range of abilities and how much they look forward to applicants from our area when they open in Apple Valley and Eagan later this year (can you say new IEP goal for Elliott?)
  • That members of the legislature attended, served as panelists, and asked families to connect with them so they could know and understand their needs better – both parties – even those running for office chose to show up and learn!
  • That there were groups of people sitting around tables learning from one another and sharing ideas and perspectives that help all of us understand and connect with one another in new ways – individuals with disabilities, teachers, administrators, parents, police officers, elected officials, siblings, UofM Psychologists/Neuropsychologists and maybe even a few middle school basketball players trying to scam cookies after their game (can’t blame them for trying!) This was beyond amazing to witness, and without a doubt will bring about positive change.  We all left with bigger villages!
  • That Heather brought out those from the FAS community who don’t have the kind of awareness that other groups do and some folks affected by a local charter school that is closing its doors leaving students and families feeling worried and unsure. Building connections is a start.
  • That there were a variety of people in attendance and lots of community members joining us in spirit because of work/family commitments, parenting challenges, etc. Some have even shared ideas and feedback with Mary and her team because of the invitation to the forum even if they were unable to attend.
  • That while apologizing to Joe, one of the school custodial staff members, for staying way too long, we learned that his son is on the autism spectrum, just completed college and has his own apartment. Inspiring stuff!
  • That Mary Kreger was so busy doing her regular “Director of Special Ed” duties, yet also determined to fulfill her commitment to make this forum happen that she actually met with us in a coffee shop on MLK day when she could have been binge watching something on Netflix or doing whatever special ed. directors do when they are not at work. That speaks volumes and conveys genuine commitment to our community as a whole.  She really is the bomb!
  • That my Elliott, who considered attending but decided he’d rather wait for a different “boring meeting” (like an IEP) had a terrific conversation with me about the forum, and kindly reminded me to use my friendship skills and not to say bad words – especially jerk. I did my best to make him proud.

I remember sitting in that coffee shop together, and chatting about how amazing it would be if we could somehow bring together lots of different people and creatively think of new ways to be inclusive and partner in new and different ways as a community.  Our primary goal was the shared hope that this would have impact beyond the two hours people spent in the auditorium, and maybe, just maybe, that other communities would be inspired to do similar forums with their own personal spin that we can attend and learn from.  Time will tell, but my gut feeling is this is entirely possible.  Still, what happened last night was so much more than we ever dared to envision – and that speaks volumes about our special needs community and those connected in every way.

Today when I woke up to my little girl singing a song from her upcoming 3rd grade music program, I couldn’t help but smile.  Today, the world is just a little bit brighter than it was yesterday, and while it will take lots more creative thinking and talking and working together, I know that Ada’s future is filled with possibility, and I can’t wait to learn what choices she will make.

I still think about the young man collecting trash, and I wish with all my heart he could have felt the energy and possibility from the forum because he inspired so much of what happened last night.  I have to believe he’s in a better place, and feeling empowered to make different choices about his life.  Maybe next time he can share his story with us and continue to inspire change?  Community Conversations #2 anyone . . .

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