I would like to introduce a great resource for all of us parents who are dealing with a little “more” than we thought we signed up for when we became parents. Dawn Villarreal, Naperville IL mother and special needs activist has created a website you are sure to find helpful and supportive, “One Place for Special Needs” began in October 2009 Dawn was generous to answer my questions about her life’s mission of helping others who care for a child with special needs.
1. Dawn, can you tell us a little about you personally–your family, your interests, your hobbies, if you worked outside of the home prior to “One Place.”
Anyone that knows me will tell you that I don’t know how to relax. If I’m not working on finding resources, then I’m taking care of my kids. And in the moments in between, I’m a voracious reader of non-fiction books. I try to instill in my kids that learning doesn’t stop once you’ve finished school. My guilty pleasures are watching Modern Family and The Middle on TV. Prior to creating One Place for Special Needs, I spent the last 17 years as marketing director for an electrical distributor. It was a great family owned company that I loved but the needs of my family became too great and I had to leave.
2. I know you have children with special needs, can you elaborate on that?
I have two children with special needs. My daughter, age 13, has a language-based learning disability with auditory processing disorder. My son, age 12, is on the autism spectrum with expressive/receptive language disorder. They are two wonderful kids who are best buddies.
3. When you first learned about your child’s special needs, do you remember how you responded? What advice would you give to others just now learning about some special circumstances with their child(ren)?
We were very fortunate that our children’s babysitter was in college studying special education. She diagnosed my son at 9 months as having Pervasive Developmental Disorder. She was right on the money because his official diagnosis was PDD-Nos, meaning he was on the spectrum but did not meet all the criteria of autism. We were able to begin the diagnosis process early and get him enrolled in early intervention just after his first birthday.
We were so overwhelmed by our son’s needs that we didn’t realize our daughter was struggling. The real issues did not show up until she started pre-school and she didn’t get her official diagnosis until first grade. In those early days you are really on your own. It took me a year to just understand the autism diagnosis. I didn’t have anyone to turn to for help. I truly felt alone. I immersed myself in books and the Internet. By the time I got my daughter’s diagnosis, I already earned my special needs merit badge. I just took the same approach to understand my daughter’s specific learning disability.
4. Tell us about “One Place for Special Needs.” How did you come up with the idea and how did you get started? Most of all–how do you find the time??!
The One Place for Special Needs website (http://www.oneplaceforspecialneeds.com) would not exist without my experience being a special needs mom. I currently run a Yahoo group for families with autism called Autismcc (Autism Community Connection). Every family there had a similar story of feeling alone and having no support. I searched for a website that would offer these resources but never found it. That just did not sit well with me when so many families needed help. It motivated me to build the site. I thought of all the areas where a parent needs assistance and brought it here.
You could say that I’m a little obsessed about finding resources for One Place for Special Needs. It’s all I do. It’s fortunate that I don’t mind the tedious research that means finding good resources for families. Most people can’t believe that I’ve done this on my own. I wish I could clone a couple more versions of myself to work on this project.
5. How would one go about navigating your site? Who is the intended audience? Can others post information?
Families of all special needs are encouraged to register. One Place for Special Needs is a compilation site meaning that anyone can come here and post information. Parents will find a lot of good information here. When you register, you can also fill out a personal and family profile. This helps you find other families in your neighborhood. And you can even search by your child’s interests to find a play date match. In addition to the many online resources, parents can also look at our local resource section to find therapists and other professionals and our events section for the latest workshops or support group information. For instance, you could do a local resource keyword search for “apraxia” and you would find all the professionals who listed apraxia as their specialty. I do not buy lists like other websites do. This is all real information provided by those that work with individuals with disabilities. Parents and disability groups can also create their own online community to keep in touch with each other. It’s a pretty extensive website.
6. Dawn, what are some of your parting thoughts for parents? Your local area readers will be excited to learn that Holly Olmsted-Hickey, who runs the Windy City/Chicagoland Apraxia Network, is now my Special Needs Development Manager. She really believes in the need for a central information site for special needs families. She’s helping me contact professionals to let them know about this disability resource. It’s nice to have someone as committed as I am to building this resource for families. And with her expertise, I’ll soon be able to build up the amount of apraxia resources for families.