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Miracles Made Me An Activist
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California resident Deb Peralta didn’t set out to be an Autism activist parent. In fact, parenthood was thought to be off the table entirely until it suddenly wasn’t – Devin and Darius were a miraculous gift for Deb and her husband, Dean, changing their lives in ways they couldn’t possibly imagine.
Devin Jordan was diagnosed at two and a half; with Darius Xavier, the realization came quicker, at eighteen months, when Deb noticed he was missing milestones. The word “autism” from the doctor didn’t hit Deb and Dean like a Mack truck necessarily. Their struggles to get to the moment of parenthood had almost prepared them for the news.
So their first thought was, “Okay, how can we help our child?”
Even the second diagnosis didn’t knock them down. “We didn’t fall into depression or shame because we have two. In fact we thought – it’s going to be easier with two!”
Deb’s activism began with a simple concept. “The more you talk about autism out loud, the more people become more comfortable with it.” “I speak about autism out loud, because doing so gives others the courage to do the same.” People are afraid to ask questions because they don’t want to offend.”
Her life became focused around her children and then a wider circle of people who needed her help. From shepherding Devin and Darius through forty hours a week of therapy to being a team mom for the University of San Francisco Dons baseball team (which would prove to be an unimaginable blessing down the road) to her work at her sons’ schools, Deb’s mantra was and is about sharing the joy. Sharing the information and the resources with everyone, to empower their particular journey.
Deb’s circle continued to grow over time. She became involved in San Francisco Unified School District Community Advisory Committee to Special Education, which was run by families of special needs children, and who advise the special education department of the school district on policies. “Through there, I had access to more parents,” said Deb. “I help families to maneuver around IEPs. Also, as I’m bilingual, I use my skills to help families who don’t speak English to get the services.”
At her sons’ school, Deb is a room mother, sending out monthly emails, and organizing activities and parties. “When I find a business/place that is special needs accessible friendly and accommodating, I recommend them to other families. I am now the VP of Special Education on the 2nd District PTA Board, which is the Board that trains & oversees all of the PTA’s in SF. This new position created for me, now gives me even more access to families as well as teaching & training an even wider base about inclusive practices.”
Inclusive Schools Week is celebrated world wide during the first week of December. This year’s week was Dec 1 – Dec 5. This week is all about making kids with special needs feel included in their schools. San Francisco had never done it on a big scale so when Dr. Elizabeth Blanco, (SELPA Director – Special Education Local Plan Area for San Francisco Unified School District and an Assistant Superintendent) called Deb into action, her response was, “ I’m going to do this big!”
They put together a campaign – making a minor celebrity out of redheaded Devin, as he was featured on poster that was in public schools, libraries, police departments and fire departments!
The event kicked off on steps of city hall. Richard Carranza, Head of the San Francisco Unified School District, attended, as well elected officials, Marching bands, an adorable pre-k cheerleading group, her sons’ principal and the president of the PTA. Deb made a speech there, on steps of city hall, and even managed to get through it without tears! It wasn’t easy, as the touching sight of all those people from her children’s school moved her deeply.
The event also brought about a wonderful ending to a project Deb had been working on.
For two years, Deb had been working with Mayor Edwin Lee’s office to get iPads for special education classrooms. The ones in her son’s school are Autism based, with students ranging from moderate to severe in their abilities. It was there her son Devin was a student (Darius is in an inclusion class in the same school).
Having her sons in different classrooms opened Deb’s eyes to certain things – particularly technology-based.
It’s hard for moderate to severe children with special needs to access computers for two main reasons. First off, the process of two steps – looking at the screen and then the keyboard – can be difficult and daunting. Secondly, many children have issues with fine motor skills. An iPad alleviates these roadblocks because they are one step and activate with a swipe instead of using keys.
At the end of the week, on December 5th, Mayor Lee visited Devin’s classroom – combined with the second Autism class – with press, dignitaries and iPads! Deb could only cry as she watched the presentation, as the hard work paid off. “It was a powerful example that showed that all it takes is the courage to ask for help, and not giving up until you get what it is the children or family needs.
The school Deb’s children attend is a model school for inclusive practice in San Francisco. Other professionals – teachers, principals – come to see how they make it work so successfully. But with all this acclaim and inclusiveness, nothing signaled this achievement when you walked into the school.
Then Deb had an idea, marrying all the parts of her life together in one amazing way.
The Autism Acceptance Tree. Instead of leaves, puzzle pieces would decorate the limbs.
This installation would sit permanently in the school, proudly showing the work and message of the school. The Principal & the SFUSD were on board to support the Autism Acceptance Tree.
Now came the hard part – money.
When the PTA was unable to fund the tree, Deb went to her other family – the University of San Francisco Dons baseball team. For twelve years, Deb had been a part of the lives of these young men and their families lives. And they repaid her with an amazing gift. In just two weekends, the entire amount needed for the tree was raised.
“They gave the money from their hearts,” Deb said, emotion choking her voice. This was not a tax deduction – their only reward was doing some good. To honor them, in addition to the puzzle pieces (one for each child), twenty donor pieces were created. Each donor piece had the family names and baseball stitches burned into the wooden donor puzzle pieces. “I’m so proud that my Dons family they came together and gave their money from their hearts. They gave money to a school their kids didn’t even go to.”
The contributions from Deb’s community continued to add to the project. One of the USF alumni players, Luke Sommer, worked with wood, and when Deb contacted him, he was up for the challenge! In six weeks, he made 408 wooden puzzle pieces & 20 donor pieces. Darius’ classmate’s father, Ashley Reese, made the custom tree with a special little owl.
The Autism Acceptance Tree Project was part of last year’s Autism Awareness Month’s lesson plans. Each child painted a puzzle piece during the month long lessons on autism & inclusion. The tree was completed at the end of April 2014 to end Autism Awareness Month.
So when the Mayor Lee visited, he stopped at the tree and was given the story of how Deb and her community put it together. He was also presented with a puzzle piece and a signed baseball from Deb’s USF Dons.
Mayor Lee was moved by Deb’s passion, so much so that two months later, she got a call from his office. She’s been nominated for an award for Women’s History Month!
Deb was shocked by the nomination – and even more floored when the email came the next day informing her they needed a bio and picture because “when the Mayor Lee nominates you, you get the award!”
The official invite arrived – complete with the Mayor Lee’s seal – and along with it, the news that she would have to give a four-minute speech at the ceremony.
“Four minutes – it’s amazing how long that is!” Deb laughed.
And so, on March 2nd, Deb found herself back at city hall, this time on the Mayor Lee’s private balcony. They’d invited school officials, the principal, friends and teachers, school board members, the head coach of the team and some of Deb’s baseball players. Mayor Lee gave an introduction of Deb’s work and acknowledged the baseball team for being there. All the parts of Deb’s life, all the parts of her community were recognized.
“I got through that speech. I got a little teary at the end when I thanked my husband, Dean. Without him, I couldn’t do any of the stuff I do. He supports me and takes care of our children so I can be outside our home and do my work. I had to make sure to thank him in that very public way.”
Deb didn’t read the actual proclamation until she got into the car – and then was delighted and touched to see how it was tailored to her, mentioning her husband, her children, the baseball team and her work in the community. March 2nd is now Deb Peralta day in San Francisco!
She was “overwhelmed in the best way – so humbled beyond words.”
As Deb sat waiting for her turn to make her speech, she heard the other women’s history month recipients names and what they do in San Francisco. One was a doctor, the other two work with homeless youth & adults, “Then me, I’m just a mom with a passion to help other special needs families.” “My sons shouldn’t be the only lucky ones that get everything they need in order to thrive in school.”
A board of education commissioner reminded Deb that “You’re not just a mom, you do things from your heart, you don’t get paid like the other recipients do.”
“I do it because it’s my life. It’s the life I live. From a little girl, I’ve always been from a place that you have to make things better. Whether that’s volunteering, being on a committee, or being room mother, everything makes a difference, no matter how big or small. I want to inspire other parents to find a way to make a difference!
Deb with the help of the University of San Francisco and the non profit that Deb works with, the Autism Tree Project Foundation, she is starting a baseball player mentor program, matching kids with autism to her wonderful baseball players who then become their “Baseball big brothers” the kids & their families will attend home games at usf, run the bases or hang our on our brand new 9 million dollar baseball field, and have a family day picnic after a game right on the field. Deb’s hope is to help her players and the families to form life long bonds, as autism can be very isolating. Again, Deb believes her two sons should not be the only lucky ones that get to hang out with college baseball players and just have fun without fear of being looked at different or being judged.
It was a terrible loss for her school that brought the subject of wandering home for Deb and her community. “We lost a little girl in our classroom to wandering. Our son was with her since kindergarten. It affected our school community. The saddest thing that ever happened to our school.”
Deb and Dean had been talking about GPS for the boys. They didn’t find anything out there that fit our needs until they found AngelSense. “We found AngelSense on Facebook and saw the special, and we decided to take advantage of that.”
“We just couldn’t believe what peace of mind and peace of heart, because how incredible is it that we can track our sons on our phone. To get an alert when they are out of their area, or when they leave school. We had had a problem with the bus driver, having the music loud and being on the phone and not paying attention to the kids. The Listen In helped us figure out what was going on on the bus. We were able to pinpoint what was going on and deal with the issue.”
“It’s funny, now that we have AngelSense we can’t imagine not having it. Even if they’re not at school and they’re out with their father, they still have it on. Kids can get lost.”
Even Devin and Darius like their personal GPS units. “Our little one says ‘I’m wearing my AngelSense today.’ We show him the app – he knows he’s the little blue dot on the map!”
We would like to thank Deb for speaking to us. Her activism and enthusiasm are inspiring!
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This post is brought to you by AngelSense, GPS and voice monitoring to improve the safety and well-being of children with special needs.
CLICK HERE to watch parents share their AngelSense experience.