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Focus on the Abilities

Mom’s Advocacy Brings Awareness to the Needs of Special Kids

by Karyn Brodsky

It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a REALLY BIG village to raise a special needs child. So says Dallas mom, Kelly Waterman, who has created a really big village when one didn’t exist.

Twenty years ago when the Watermans’ daughter, Sara was born with Down syndrome, “my husband Robert and I made a commitment to give her as normal a life as possible,” explains Kelly. “He and I are making this journey together, as a team, and we wanted Sara to be accepted and treated like any other child.” That’s when Kelly’s fierce maternal instincts kicked in. Kelly dove right in and became her daughter’s advocate; if there was an organization, Kelly not only supported it, she held a seat on its board of directors.

Sara, whose sunny disposition earned her the nickname “Happy”, attended grade school and middle school in Plano. While some parents of special needs students might hold back, Kelly made it her mission to become a PTA leader and soon was a role model for other parents of special needs children. “I wanted people to see special needs kids’ abilities rather than disabilities,” she says. Waterman co-founded Special and Gifted Education (S.A.G.E.) to address those who learn differently, distributing information about classes that accommodate special needs children. Soon, neighboring school districts adopted S.A.G.E.

“I like cheering at the games.” - Sara “Happy” Waterman on her years of cheerleading, including currently for the Highland Park High School “Sparkling Scots.”
“I like cheering at the games.” – Sara “Happy” Waterman on her years of cheerleading, including currently for the Highland Park High School “Sparkling Scots.”

When Waterman wanted to send Happy to camp and didn’t know where to find one, she created her own resource. Starting in 2009 with a handful of camps and a few hundred families, Waterman created the S.A.G.E. Summer Expo, featuring summer camps that cater to S.A.G.E. kids or will accommodate them.  Now the Expo has grown to over 75 camps and 1000 visitors each year.

Happy thrived in elementary school and became a cheerleader at Renner Middle School. Kelly says that being included in cheerleading boosted Happy’s self-esteem immensely. Once her daughter started high school, Kelly wanted to find a high school transition program that would be a good fit for Happy. After thoughtful consideration and thorough research, Kelly was particularly impressed with the transition program at Highland Park High School. The family moved to Highland Park, and Happy is now thriving in her 2nd year of the transitional program. Public school transition programs allow special needs kids to stay in school until age 22.

Kelly Waterman with husband Robert and their children, Nick, age 18 and Happy, age 20.
Kelly Waterman with husband Robert and their children, Nick, age 18 and Happy, age 20.

When Kelly heard that Happy’s new high school lacked a special needs cheerleading program, she put together a presentation for the administration and before she could finish her proposal, her idea was approved. For Happy and the other special needs cheerleaders, the program builds their confidence and makes them feel that they are part of their high school community. “It’s wonderful,” says Happy. “I like cheering at the games.” Kelly is tickled the “Sparkling Scots,” which pairs varsity cheerleaders with special needs cheerleaders to teach them routines, is so successful. “I love not only advocating for my daughter but advocating for all kids.”

Kelly’s advocacy is infectious, with the whole family taking part. Son Nick, an 18-year-old football player for the Air Force Academy and “the best brother you could ever imagine,” has volunteered as a Best Buddy, a peer tutor and for the Special Olympics.

In her “spare time,” Kelly serves on the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee that makes recommendations to better the school. She is also the school’s transition program liaison, researching internships, training programs and more. Kelly also finds time to serve as a board member of the Park Cities Learning Difference Association, raising funds for teacher training in innovative programs for special needs kids.

Karen Pizette, a Plano mom who also has a special needs child, nominated Kelly for the VIP award. “Kelly has been an inspiration to me and many families over the years. She has been a leader, guiding us through the school system and extracurricular activities for our special kiddos,” says Pizette. She recognizes Kelly’s tireless commitment to starting special needs friendly programs and calls her nothing short of “amazing.”

A true inspiration to all parents and a shining role model for parents of special needs kids, Kelly’s positive outlook and passion have made a noticeable difference in many young lives. For her endless energy, impactful involvement, fierce advocacy and fortitude, Good Life Family Magazine is honored to present this month’s VIP award to Kelly Waterman.

Our VIP (Very Inspiring Parent) Award honors the everyday, and not-so-everyday, heroes in our midst. Those whose tenacity, integrity and courage inspire others to exemplify the same character and put their families and community first, in spite of the challenges life has thrown at them. Good Life Family will present the recipient with an elegant crystal award and will make a donation to the charity of their choice. There will be one VIP award recipient in each issue of Good Life Family magazine and featured on GoodLifeFamilyMag.com. 

For complete details or to nominate CLICK HERE or email Tricia@goodlifefamilymag.com.

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