3 Families with Special Needs Kids Making a Difference
Atlanta families often search for ways to contribute to their community while also advocating for their children. Meet three metro Atlanta families with special needs kids who are making a difference.
Changing the Face of Modeling
Asher Nash loves the camera. Bring one out, and he “grins ear to ear,” his mom Meagan Nash says.
He’s incredibly photogenic, so Nash and her husband David thought he’d be a perfect model. But when they tried to submit his photo, they became aware of a disconnect between advertising and people with disabilities. They set out to change that.
“People with disabilities want to be included amongst their peers in life in general and being seen in an advertisement is a part of that,” Meagan Nash says. “Without truly accepting my son and others with special needs, there can be no inclusion for them in the future.”
Nash says the agency doing casting for Carter’s clothing ads at first declined to submit Asher’s photo, saying Carter’s criteria didn’t ask for kids with special needs.
“That puzzled me and so I asked if they did not want a baby with special needs,” Nash says. The criteria didn’t exclude Asher, who was born with Down syndrome, or other kids with special needs. The agency agreed to send his photo to Carter’s, but Asher wasn’t selected.
That’s when Nash discovered an organization called Changing the Face of Beauty, which encourages families to share photos of their kids on social media and tag brands that are not yet using kids with special needs in advertising. Nash selected Oshkosh B’Gosh, a Carter’s brand with corporate headquarters in Atlanta, only a short drive from their home in Buford. Her post was shared more than 100,000 times. Oshkosh then contacted the Nashes and asked to meet Asher.
His adorable photos were part of Oshkosh’s holiday ads, and he’ll appear in spring and summer ads, too.
“Not many people realize this, but Asher was the first person ever with a disability to appear in an Oshkosh ad,” Nash says.
Since then, he’s modeled for Babies ‘R Us, Toys ‘R Us, Safety First, Happy Family Brand, The Moodsters and Num Num. He also filmed a public service announcement for World Down Syndrome Day with the cast of “Born This Way.” (See the video by searching “Shining a Light on World Down Syndrome Day” on YouTube).
And he’ll be part of an early intervention campaign for Babies Can’t Wait and Easterseals.
“We feel so honored for him to be a part of this so that others can see how amazing the Babies Can’t Wait program and the Easterseals are,” Nash says. “We have been working with them to ensure that all kids, with all abilities get the services they need to thrive in their communities.”
The whole Nash family is involved in changing perceptions about kids with special needs, and Asher’s sister Addison, 9, is one of his biggest supporters. She’s done a short video on Down syndrome to show at her school and is working on starting her own nonprofit.
Nash says she never intended to portray a clothing company in a negative light, just raise awareness and change perceptions.
“I want people to be able to see my son or others like him in an ad and not instantly say, ‘Oh, he has Down syndrome,’” she says. “I want them to say, ‘Oh, I love that shirt that baby is wearing; I want that for my child!’”
To get updates on Asher, visit his Facebook page, facebook.com/Ashersdownrightperfect.
Connections for a New School
When Gabriel Stettner-Auerbach turned 12, his parents Ted Stettner and Alison Auerbach were in a quandary: Where would their autistic son go to school after he aged out of The Hirsch Academy in Decatur?
The K-8 school is near their home and had been wonderful for Gabriel for six years. They wanted a high school with a similar philosophy and teaching methods. They found just one school that might meet his needs, but its location would put them in heavy traffic on I-285 every day.
“Traffic is his meltdown issue,” Auerbach says. “I knew I would be dropping off a disregulated child every morning.”
A conversation with Hirsch’s principal gave Auerbach another idea, and she and Stettner started to talk to other parents facing the same dilemma. Six weeks later plans for Connections School of Atlanta started to take shape.
With the support of a group of dedicated parents and countless hours of planning, the school opened with six students on Aug. 9, 2016, in space leased from the Inman Park United Methodist Church. Twelve students are enrolled for the coming year, and the school expects to educate 18 the following year.
“Our kids are learning at or above their grade level,” says Auerbach, volunteer associate director of the school. “They’re flying as high as they can get.”
Gabriel, now 14, is a typical teenager, his mom says. They constantly battle over how much time he spends with electronics, especially his iPad, and he’ll produce a put-upon sigh when asked to unload the dishwasher or clean his room. He clowns with his father, donning a mustache for a photo. He’s sometimes the sweetest kid ever, and sometimes a moody teenager. And like a typical teen, his future is still a question mark.
The school supports career paths that involve college or vocational training and plans to offer a transition program to help kids achieve either goal, from preparing for SAT tests to virtual career training.
“We are not here to ‘fix’ our students – we don’t believe they are broken,” Auerbach says. “We view our job as to help kids understand what needs they have and to be able to ask for them. Our goal for our students is that they will go on to live the fulfilling lives they choose.”
Find out more at connectionsschoolofatlanta.wordpress.com or call 404-602-9404.
Rest and Hope for Exhausted Parents
The families of kids with special needs sometimes feel overwhelmed, and Brian and Suzanne Cairns know that all too well. That’s why they started Restore Place, to provide a much-needed break for caregivers.
The Cairns are parents to two spirited teens, Paige, 15, and Romann, 13. Romann was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at age 3.
Through Brian Cairns’ work in Christian counseling and their friendships with other parents, the family became aware of some parents of special needs children who are unable to take even a weekend getaway when they’re just overwhelmed.
“Our heart is to journey with them, to give them rest, encouragement and hope,” Suzanne Cairns says.
Restore Place helped more than 50 families in 2016, and hopes to double that number this year. Parents who contact the organization may be eligible for a two-night, most-expenses-paid getaway to one of three resorts. Parents hear about Restore Place through word-of-mouth, therapists, and support organizations for families with special needs, such as FOCUS (focus-ga.org).
“We want them to be able to get away from the daily grind, to enjoy each other’s company, to do things together they never get to do, to just relax,” she says.
After a visit, one couple told her it was so special to be able to hold hands on a date – the first time in years – because someone always had to push their child’s wheelchair.
The Cairns make themselves available to the parents if they feel the need to talk during their getaway, and they stay in touch afterward. Brian has regular coffee and lunch meetings with other fathers, and Suzanne hosts a weekly women’s meeting.
The getaways are funded through partnerships with the resorts, individual and corporate donations and fundraising through an annual golf tournament (this year’s event is May 8 at BridgeMill Athletic Club in Canton).
The Cairns recently bought a house on two acres in Canton, with plans to build a respite cottage on the property and open it to parents needing rest.
“We can personally relate to needing a break,” Suzanne Cairns says. “We want to give hope and encouragement to parents so they won’t feel isolated.”
Find out more about Restore Place at restoreplace.org.
– Amanda Miller Allen