Supporting Children with Communication Disorders

Identify The Signs Lips BannerI am delighted that the National PTA is highlighting children with special needs this month as part of its “Every Child in Focus” campaign. Both this worthy initiative and the special needs population will undoubtedly benefit from improved awareness and engagement from PTAs nationwide.

Children with communication disorders—difficulty speaking or hearing—are among those who are being brought into focus. This is an important population to recognize as children make up a significant portion of the estimated 40 million Americans who suffer from these disorders. In fact, speech disorders affect 8 to 9 percent of young children, and hearing loss affects two in every 100 children. Many other children are affected by medical or developmental disorders such as autism with associated communication challenges that compromise the quality of life of the child and their family.

Children with communication disorders often find the school setting particularly difficult to maneuver, although it can be a place where these children can thrive given the opportunity. For many, this will be the first time a child is seen by a professional speech-language pathologist or audiologist. (Though the ideal scenario is to identify children with communication disorders before they start school, treatment at any age is beneficial.) The support of other students, teachers, administrators, parents, and the entire school community can make a significant positive difference. Also, school is a place where important information and educational resources about these common disorders can be distributed to parents, through channels such as the PTA.

Unlike most other disorders, communication disorders are reversible and even preventable with early treatment. In my career as a speech-language pathologist, one of the biggest barriers to treatment I have observed is a general lack of awareness of what a communication disorder is and what it means for a child and family. My experience is far from unique. A recent poll by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) of its members found that almost half of our respondents cited lack of awareness as the top barrier to early detection and treatment. A new ASHA public education campaign—Identify the Signs—has been designed to change this. As ASHA’s 2013 president, I have been actively involved in this effort to educate parents about the primary signs of communication disorders and the difference early intervention can make. In general, the earlier treatment begins, the better the results. As added benefits, early treatment usually takes less time to achieve a successful outcome and costs less. These are important messages for parents.

The Identify the Signs campaign offers many resources for parents, educators, and others at They include public service announcements in English and Spanish, lists of signs that parents should be aware of, educational podcasts, and a searchable list of certified providers by geographic area. Local PTAs can play an integral role by helping to inform parents, and we welcome chapters to utilize any of the resources on the website. By better educating parents and the greater public about how to recognize the signs of communication disorders early, for many children, we can prevent unnecessary struggles in the classroom, along with improving their overall quality of life.

Patricia A. Prelock, PhD, CCC-SLP, is the 2013 President of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. She is dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, professor of communication sciences and disorders, and professor of pediatrics in the College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

The Arts Are For All!

PTA believes that all children deserve opportunities to explore and participate in the arts and to be recognized for their achievements. While children with special needs have always been welcomed to the National PTA Reflections® program, National PTA recognizes that some children may be better served in a division that can better support their unique challenges. The Special Artist Division provides this choice.

Bradley Mauger, "On the Raindy River"

Bradley Mauger, “On the Rainy River”

This past year, the Special Artist Division emerged as an optional division for students whose physical, cognitive, or mental health challenges meet guidelines put forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act. This division was created as an alternative mode of entry for participants with special needs.  Students with disabilities have the option to enter and participate in the National PTA Reflections program within the Special Artist Division or whichever Grade Division is most closely aligned with their functional abilities.

Please check with your State PTA regarding availability in your state of residence and click here to learn more about division guidelines.


Sarah Khan, “Sarah’s Friendship”

In the summer of 2013, National PTA piloted a program called the Special Artist Workshops that gave students with special needs and disabilities the opportunity to participate in intensive, high quality arts learning experiences. Workshops led by a teaching team of Special Education teachers, teaching artists, and PTA leaders provided students and their families the opportunity to learn in a supportive artistic and educational environment. This pilot is just one example of how Reflections continues to provide us with the opportunity to engage families and build strong family-school-community partnerships.

Visit the National PTA Reflections Gallery for a complete list of Reflections award recipients including submissions from our Special Artist Division.

Students with special needs and disabilities experience greater challenges in everyday life than their peers. Oftentimes, they are unaware of how to express their thoughts, feelings, and dreams, and through art, they are able to blossom and find success.  PTA Reflections Special Artist Division provides these students the opportunity to blossom with the added benefit of engaging their parents and communities in their success.

For more information on how students with disabilities learn through the arts visit our national partner, Kennedy Center/VSA.

Making a Difference for Children with Diabetes


Crystal Jackson is the Director of the American Diabetes Association’s Safe at School Campaign and is the proud mom of Devin, diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1991 and Dylan, her supportive brother.

Like most other parents of elementary school children, I felt a lot of excitement, anticipation and trepidation when I first sent my two children off to school in the mid 1990’s.  Would they feel homesick, would their teacher be a good fit, would they easily make new friends with their classmates and would there be resources in place to support their individualized learning styles and to keep them engaged and excited about school?  And what role could I play as a parent to best support the school community?  As a mother of a daughter living with type 1 diabetes, I also wondered what could I do to ensure a safe and healthy learning environment for my daughter and to enhance awareness about the importance of schools and families working collaboratively to keep all students safe and healthy?

Shortly after receiving my PTA membership card, I became the local unit’s health and legislative chair and later became the legislation chair for the region.  PTA taught me a lot about the importance of advocacy through education and persistence that I later put to use to advocate for my own daughter when she wasn’t getting the diabetes care she needed at school.  PTA was a driving force in providing me with the advocacy skills and confidence to educate school administrators and legislators about how to best meet the needs of students with diabetes.   In 1999, I led a group of Virginia parents that pressed the Virginia General Assembly to pass the first comprehensive school diabetes care law in the country, a major victory for all children with diabetes living in Virginia.  This law is still in effect and is the gold standard for other states.

From this experience, the American Diabetes Association offered me a position where I could use my professional paralegal background, PTA experience and parent passion to make a difference.  Since 1999, I have had the honor and good fortune of leading the Association’s Safe at School Campaign through working with a committed team of staff and volunteers to achieve legislative and policy change in states and school districts nationwide

The Association’s Safe at School Campaign provides families, schools and health care providers with the resources they need to keep children with diabetes safe at school and to overcome any obstacles that might stand in the way.  As was my daughter’s case and for all children with diabetes, this includes advocating for training school staff members to provide care when a school nurse isn’t available.  It means advocating to change laws and policies so capable children can self-manage their own diabetes  anywhere in the school setting.  And it means fighting to protect the rights of children with diabetes so they can enjoy access to the same educational and extracurricular opportunities as their peers.

As a mother, an advocate and an employee, I am proud that the American Diabetes Association devotes significant resources and people-power to children with diabetes and their families and I’m grateful that one PTA parent voice became a voice for many.

Safe at School Resources

The American Diabetes Association’s Safe at School Campaign is dedicated to making sure all children with diabetes are medically safe at school and have the same educational opportunities as their classmates.

The American Diabetes Association’s August 15, 2013,  Back to School Parent Webinar includes a Safe at School campaign overview and information on school diabetes care challenges, federal and state law, developing 504 Plans and more. Watch the webinar or download the transcript (PDF).

The American Diabetes Association recommends parents/guardians to work with their child’s diabetes health care provider to develop a Diabetes Medical Management Plan (DMMP) before returning to school after diagnosis and to update the plan annually or as the child’s diabetes management needs change.  The DMMP details the diabetes care needed at school to keep students with diabetes safe and healthy. The Association’s DMMP template can be found at

The American Diabetes Association has a template Section 504 plan to help families and schools develop a plan to address training school staff members, academic adjustments, self-management, extracurricular activities, communication and the school’s responsibilities in meeting the needs of the child.  The template 504 plan can be found at

The American Diabetes Association also has information explaining the rights of children to receive care in the child care setting and post-secondary students rights

For other important information about diabetes for families and children go to

Save the Date! Digital Learning Day, February 5

Save the Date _Digital Learning DayAs a parent, you see first hand how students are using technology in all aspects of life, be it Googling a fact from any setting; creating and posting videos; or collaborating with friends on Pinterest. Rapid technological advances have changed the face of society and the economy in recent decades, and it is vital that the education provided to our children keeps pace in this rapidly evolving environment. We all want our children to be qualified for twenty-first-century jobs, and that means that we must work to ensure that they receive a twenty-first-century education.

Sadly, many schools still require students to “power down” during class or fail to leverage technology as effectively as they could for instruction. Looking at some schools across the nation, you can quickly see the ways in which the combination of technology and engaged teachers can transform how children learn; from collaborative tools to online learning platforms, technology often has a profound impact not only on how teachers teach and students learn, but also where and what students learn.

We need your help. There is a growing consensus around the country that common-sense, effective applications of digital learning in the classroom can provide students with a rich, personalized educational experience and dramatically improve student outcomes. It is with this in mind that educators, students, parents, and leaders across the country will be joining together with the Alliance for Excellent Education to celebrate and participate in the third annual Digital Learning Day on Wednesday, February 5, 2014.

We urge you to add your voice to the emerging choir of parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers who are embracing digital learning in the classroom. With a national event at the Library of Congress and events in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, Digital Learning Day is a great opportunity to use momentum from national and state awareness campaigns to highlight local digital learning efforts to media, community leaders, and local policymakers.

Digital Learning Day is a national celebration of innovation in education, centered on the belief that every child deserves the opportunity to learn in a robust digital environment that supports quality teaching every day. Supported by a powerful grassroots campaign, Digital Learning Day promotes the effective use of technology to improve outcomes and achieve higher college- and career-ready standards for all students. Every child deserves a sound educational foundation, and Digital Learning Day promotes the idea that technology joined with teachers is, and will continue to be, a key part of that foundation.

Five Great Ways to Participate in Digital Learning Day

  1. Add your voice in support of digital learning in schools.
  2. Help create a PTA event or showcase at your local school.
  3. Help plan activities for your child’s class.
  4. Share your local school’s plans by adding them to the event map.
  5. Spread the word; invite friends, family, and colleagues to join the movement.

The Lessons of Advocacy: A Parent’s Journey Advocating for Children with Special Needs

Special needs advocacy develops from a moment of choice. In that moment, you recognize that a child has special needs that are not being adequately addressed by the educational, medical, community, family, or other structures that are intended to support the child. Those that choose to recognize that the child deserves to have his or her needs met, deserves to live a safe and, fulfilled life in which they are allowed  to fully realize his or her potential, have made the first step towards advocacy.

This choice can cause a moment of panic. A person may ask, “what do I know?” or “why should I be the one to speak up?” One may even feel that advocating for that child will put themselves and others at risk. But advocacy is not to be feared. Rather, this doubt and fear should be viewed as an opportunity to confront the challenge and begin the process of gaining the skills and knowledge that it takes to be an effective advocate for children with special needs. It can be a difficult choice for families to speak up for their child, or for school staff to support necessary changes, but the reward outweighs the risks.

Once you express your concerns, request a meeting, or ask for an evaluation for your child, you are an advocate. Hopefully, you are met with a supportive response, but you may be met by an individual who resists change or cannot see a need to revise school special education policies.  The law requires schools to meet minimum expectations, which some may feel is enough. This is the first lesson of advocacy: It is rarely fast and easy. In the majority of cases the system wants to do nothing, or at best continue to simply meet the minimum requirements.

This may leave you discouraged and frustrated, but persistence is key. At some point, a teacher, a parent, administrator, or even another advocate will thank you for speaking up for this child. They may have been afraid to speak up, have felt they did not have the skills, or were just unaware of the need. This is the second lesson of advocacy: you are not alone. There is strength in numbers.

Reenergized, you do not take no for an answer from the system and begin to arm yourself with knowledge and information to bring to the table. You can begin by reaching out to your local PTA or by contacting your state’s Parent Training and Resource Center. You quickly learn that many at this table, including the experts, are missing important knowledge and understanding of the law, special needs, and how to protect and support children with special needs. This is the third lesson of advocacy: you will spend as much or more time educating others as you do directly advocating. You persevere; you keep calling meetings and slow progress is made towards meeting the child’s needs. This is still frustrating, but you can begin to see the difference in the child’s life.

Then it happens, a parent, teacher or someone else comes to you for help. They have recognized your advocacy skills and tell you a story of a child whose needs are not being met. Pretty soon you begin to advocate for many children, not just yours. The school begins to want your help and knowledge, and progress towards meeting the child’s needs happens quickly. It is almost like something magical has happened or you are in another world. Of course, often it can be the same old battles over and over again, but as we learned before, advocacy is not always simple or easy and slow progress is better than no progress.

You come to the realization that you cannot help all children individually, and that only system change can end the need for these individual battles. On to the next level: enforcing the existing laws and working at the state and federal level to improve the laws that protect children with special needs. You find allies and help with drafting, passing, and implementing legislation. You come to fully appreciate the final lesson of advocacy: it is hard work and never ends. But the reward is that you are making a difference in children’s lives, and this work will benefit them for a lifetime.

The above path is a compilation of my journey as a volunteer parent advocate of a child with a disability and that of many other advocates that I work with.  Where do you fall in this story? Do you want to begin or need help with your advocacy?  Remember there is power in numbers and that PTA is first and foremost an advocacy association. Does your local PTA have a special needs or exceptional child committee, or an advocacy or legislation committee? If not, check your region or state PTA.  You may also contact the National PTA Special Needs committee, or check out the Special Education Toolkit on National PTA’s website. Always remember this: you are not alone in your journey to improve the lives children.

Yes, I see everything though an advocate’s lens, and would not change it for anything. I am making a difference in improving the lives of children and there is no better calling for me. If you are thinking of speaking up for a child with special needs, always remember this: you are not alone in your journey to improve the lives children.

Bill Doolittle is the parent of a child with special needs and a member of National PTA’s Special Needs committee. He resides in Delaware.

For More Information:National PTA’s Special Education Toolkit includes a guide to getting started, information for transitioning families of children with special needs from Pre-K through graduation, helpful acronyms and terms, and a breakdown of federal special needs laws.

Join fellow PTA advocates for the PTA 2014 Legislative Conference. This exciting three-day event provides in-depth discussion about PTA’s public policy priorities through interactive workshops, keynote speakers, advocacy trainings and more. Registration for the Legislative Conference will open January 17, 2014. Please visit for more information.




Keep Flu out of School!

In the United States, students miss 38 million days of school each year because of the flu.  This school year, the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) would like to see 100 percent attendance, complete with healthy students in class learning, healthy teachers teaching their lessons, and healthy parents/guardians at work.  To reach this goal, one important step we can all take is to get the flu vaccine every year – that means students, school staff, and families.  I got mine for this flu season – what about you?

Flu is serious and highly unpredictable, but it can be prevented.  School nurses support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation that everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu vaccine each year.  This is important since the flu can make children sick enough to miss school, be hospitalized, or even die.  Did you know that 90 percent of the children who died from the flu last season missed getting their flu vaccine, and most of them were previously healthy?  Listen to the voices of parents who know how serious flu can be in children first hand.

The grandparents in your community should also get an annual vaccine – those more than 65 years of age are more at risk for influenza and its complications.  When children are protected from getting the flu because they were vaccinated, a protective bubble is created around their grandparents and anyone else in their school community who might be at great risk for the complications of flu, including babies, fellow students who have a chronic condition such as asthma, or anyone with a weak immune system.  Ultimately, the flu vaccine protects children and others in our communities.

Finally, I want to speak to my fellow school nurses.  First and foremost, lead by example and let others know you got your flu vaccine. Check out the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases website  to see who else is committed to leading by example.  Second, stay informed about current vaccine recommendations and resources so you are able to make a strong recommendation in your schools resulting in greater vaccine uptake in your communities. And be sure to check out the NASN influenza website.

School nurses strongly recommend that everyone at school get the flu vaccine this flu season.   Ask your school nurse where you can go in your community to get vaccinated.  Let’s keep the flu out of school!

Nichole Bobo, MSN, RN is the Director of Nursing Education for the National Association of School Nurses (NASN).  She has been with the organization since 2000, providing oversight for NASN’s immunization programming.

Reflections: A Gallery of 2012-2013 Student Art

Since 1969, the PTA Reflections program has encouraged students across the nation and in American schools overseas to explore their artistic talents. Each year, students in preschool through high school are invited to create and submit works of art in the areas of dance choreography, film production, literature, music composition, photography, and the visual arts.

In the 2012-2013 school year, Reflections students shared their artistic interpretations on the theme “The Magic of a Moment.” We received a wide variety of deeply felt and beautifully executed original works of art that express the importance of family, the simplicity of nature and the buoyant feelings of hope, adventure and achievement as seen through the eyes of a child. We are proud to share with you this year’s Outstanding Interpretations in each art category, the top honor Reflections bestows upon our young artists.

Dance Choreography

Outstanding Interpretation
in Dance Choreography

Student Artist: Demiana Remick
“The Power of Just One Moment” 



Demiana Remick: This song has personal meaning to me because my life as a dancer consists of moment after moment of making choices that can create magic or possible havoc. For example, selecting a certain dance prospect can create opportunity or cause injury; and I have experienced both. Dance is “all I live for, the air I breath,” as the song says, “I keep on shuffling on and on” from one moment to the next trying to create the magic and avoid the turmoil.


Film Production

Outstanding Interpretation
in Film Production

Student Artist: John General
“Painted Love”




John General: A broken hearted graffiti artist is shocked to find his art work come to life and tell the story behind his broken love life.  After hard work and overcoming the obstacles in his way during a failing romance, the artist finds the true magic in a moment when he finds the sensation and happiness in fulfilling his heat’s desire.  His swelling heart basks in the magic of the moment when his heart is put back together.



 There was nothing so peculiar about New York City on a bone-chilling, winter morning. Like a set of ringing alarms, New York City was set adrift ubiquitously at the exactly prescribed time. The enthusiastic street sellers were seducing the passing crowed with flashy merchandise and then some, while the bustling street were rowdy with impatient businessmen and women, curious, quick-paced tourists, and avid shoppers who were all anxious to arrive at their destinations, whether it was the next grand sale at the nearest mall, the majestic Empire State Building, or the desolate offices and cubicles that English its prisoners in fatigue and boredom.         Read more…
Outstanding Interpretation
in Literature

Student Artist: Jenny Pham
“A Cup of Hope”



Jenny Pham headshotJenny Pham: Losing hope, an orphan embarks on a journey to a new life and meets a woman who teaches him that there is always a silver lining in a thundercloud. The theme, “Magic of a Moment,” is proven through the forever changed lives of the boy and woman because of their selfless actions. This story was inspired by events in my home country, Vietnam, and Howard Kelly’s milk story. I truly hope that this story inspires others to do kind deeds without ever expecting a reward because I know that the best things in life are never given – they are earned. 


Music Composition


Outstanding Interpretation
in Music Composition

Student Artist: Savannah Du
“Daybreak Over A Pond”



Savannah Du PianoSavannah Du: Sometimes, I get up early in the morning and wait for the sun to rise. Most days, the sky is cloudy grey, the water still and unclear, the sun hidden from view, and I walk home cold and disappointed. But once in a while, the sky is deep maroon, the water hits the shore in ripples, and ducks dance across the surface of the pond. And when the first light of the sun rests upon my face, there are no sounds to describe the warmth of the magical moment of sunrise.



Tatum Long Artwork
Outstanding Interpretation
in Photography

Student Artist: Tatum Long
“Skiing in Style”



Tatum Long Headshot

Tatum Long: This past year, I learned to both snow ski and water ski.  I was thinking it feels magical the moment you learn how to do something difficult for the very first time.  I wanted to show myself snow skiing but I couldn’t figure out how to take a picture of myself while I was ‘actually’ skiing.  That’s when I decided to create an imaginary world of skiing in my bedroom with things I could find around my house.


Visual Arts

 artwork 12.25x19.5 OS TFA_BLOG
Outstanding Interpretation
in Visual Arts

Student Artist: Alice Abrams


Alice Abrams HeadshotAlice Abrams: My painting reflects the excitement and wonder that comes with a young imagination.  In my painting, the little girl is escaping her dull, “Black & White” world and stepping into a colorful world fueled by her imagination.  One of the most magic times of a young child’s life is that moment when they realize that they aren’t condemned to this world and can be and do whatever they can imagine.  This little girls is just realizing that the sky is the limit with her dreams.



Special Artist

Special Artist Division

Sarah Kahn
“Sarah’s Friendship”


Sarah Khan Headshot 2Sarah Khan: It hasn’t been easy for me to make friends and keep them.  When I am able to make a connection with someone and they remain a loyal friend, it’s wonderful and as we say here magical.  The way I dance is mostly ballet.  I like to take what I learn, and embrace the meaning of the music and words.  I take what I am feeling inside and show in dance and the lessons I learned in friendship.  When I am dancing, the feeling, the steps I take, and the meaning I have inside joined together that is magic for me.  When I dance it expresses how I feel and uses the steps that I have learned in Ballet during the year.


Reflections at the U.S. Department of Education

Join us in celebrating arts in education by attending the Reflections Exhibit at the U.S. Department of Education between January 7, 2014- February 27, 2014.  The public exhibit is open Monday-Friday, except federal holidays, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. and is located in the LBJ Education Building, 400 Maryland Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20202. To schedule a visit, contact Nicole Carinci, Management & Program Analyst at the U.S. Dept. of Education, at or call (202)453-5585. National PTA thanks the thousands of parent volunteers and the U.S. Department of Education’s Student Art Exhibit Program for this opportunity to showcase award winning Reflections.

Student artwork will also be featured at the National PTA Convention June 19-22 in Austin, Texas. Save the date!

View all Reflections dance choreography film production, photography and visual arts award winners on the National PTA Flickr Album.

Please email for questions regarding Reflections student art exhibits.


Ethan Clark is the Manager of Arts in Education for National PTA in Alexandria, VA. Contact Ethan at

Early Intervention For Students with Special Needs: A Rural Kindergarten Teacher’s Perspective

As a kindergarten teacher in rural Mississippi, I have had the privilege to serve young children coming from diverse life circumstances and varying ability levels.  With this incredible opportunity has come immense responsibilities that I could have never imagined when I arrived in the Mississippi Delta.  Throughout my teacher preparation courses in college, I was only required to complete one class focused on serving children with special needs.  Despite the very limited instruction I received in this area, I felt relatively ready to serve children in my classes with special needs. Looking back, I now realize, no new teacher is fully prepared to successfully assist so many special needs students in one class; especially since most of those students have not had any preschool experience.

When I received my very first roster of students prior to my first day as a new teacher, my principal informed me that she had placed all of the kindergarten students for the entire entering kindergarten grade with IEP’s into my classroom.  This meant that of the fifteen students on my class roster, five of the students had severe learning disabilities and developmental delays.  I quickly realized that the lack of resources, time and teacher experience needed to serve these students was going to be the least of my worries.  I soon recognized that there were four other students in my class that were in need of intervention services.

Since most of my students did not attend any type of formal pre-school education before entering my classroom, they did not have access to early intervention services, and were now in danger of falling behind. This eye-opening experience made it clear to me that high-quality early intervention services are critical to children’s success in school.  It is heart wrenching as a teacher to know that had these students been born into more affluent areas of our country, they may have received the intervention services needed to enhance their development.

The National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center reports that high quality intervention services can positively change a child’s life trajectory and improve outcomes for children’s success in the future.  Furthermore, research demonstrates that high quality early intervention programs can drastically reduce future problems in a child’s development.  I am frustrated by the fact that had my students been given access to such services before entering kindergarten, the problems and challenges they face on a daily basis could have been greatly reduced.  It is for these reasons that I believe it is essential that ALL children have access to a high-quality pre-school education that includes early accommodation services. Without these services, the likelihood that they will remain on grade level throughout their school age years is quite remote.

Kelly Eischeid
Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Education from the University of South Carolina
Master’s Degree in Elementary Education from Delta State University
Teach For America Alumni (’11) currently teaching in Sunflower County, Mississippi

Learn more…

How PTA Reflections Brightened Our Lives

Emily and son Benjamin

Emily and son Benjamin

Just about 2 years ago, I fell extremely ill.  It was a scary time for our family as the doctors were unable to identify the cause or provide a treatment. I was 33 years old, a stay at home mom with 3 young boys, and I suddenly found myself bed ridden and unable to care for my family.  Even the simplest of tasks, like changing my baby’s diaper, became extremely difficult. On most days I was not well enough to even sit up to the dinner table. As my husband did his best to take over the household duties, a lot of responsibility was also placed on the young shoulders of my oldest son, Benjamin, who was just 7 years old and in 1st grade.

During this time, I tried my best to stay positive and look for the good around me. I would often reassure my children that “Mommy is going to be okay!” I used to be so active, it was such a change in the house for my children. One day, when I was particularly sick, Benjamin and I made a list of things that no matter how sick I became, I could still do these things with my boys.  We filled the list with items like “I can hug my children” and “Read a story together” or just simply “Snuggle”. Benjamin taped the list to the fridge and it became a powerful reminder of the many good things we could still enjoy as a family.

After 9 months of testing, my doctors sent me to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. While there, I was diagnosed with a severe auto immune disorder and was told I would never be able to resume the life I had lived before. My body was too weak for me to walk very far, so I had to be pushed in a wheelchair. We traveled back home with the disappointing news to tell my young sons that Mom would not be getting better and that we had to find the best way to live with this new “normal”.

School soon started and Benjamin began the 2nd grade. Then one day he came home overflowing with excitement! “Mom! There’s a PTA Reflections contest and I want to win!”  He was so determined and as he thought over what he could write about, he realized that he had a story he could share – about what he had learned during my illness and how we could still find the magic in the moments we spent together.

I don’t think I have ever seen him work so hard on anything in his life.  He wrote so carefully, one or two sentences at a time. Slowly, paragraph by paragraph he began to share his feelings. As I read, sometimes my heart would ache. He shared feelings and worries he had never told me about before. It was only as I read his essay that I realized that while I thought I had been brave for him, he had also been brave for me.

When he was finished, honestly, I was hesitant to let him submit it. I did not like to talk about how hard things had become with my illness and he was so open and truthful about it. Perhaps that is when the real magic began to happen. Somehow, my son’s having the courage to speak about what we were going through gave me more courage.  Then, amazingly, he started winning. First his essay won for his school, and then his city, and then the state! With each win, his confidence soared and he felt pride in his story. When Benjamin won in his category for the nation, we were overjoyed! It gave our entire family such a happy experience to share with others – and when they asked “What was his story about?” we would share his essay with them. Some visitors cried as they read it, others just smiled. Winning this contest not only gave Benjamin a voice, but it gave our whole family a voice to share our experience.

I never imagined the terrific, positive affect this contest would have on our family. I am writing this because I want you to know that this program truly makes an impact in others lives. I know it did for us. It came at a time when it was so important for not only my son, but our whole family to have something happy to talk about. It turned a difficult topic into something positive that he could share with others. Best of all, he learned that not only could he share his feelings about something difficult, but he could be rewarded for it!

I am happy to tell you that this summer, after 18 long months of illness, a local doctor here in Montana ran a test that had been missed by Mayo.  It revealed that my urine was full of infection. Through a cat scan we discovered that my right kidney is positioned almost upside down in my body and creating a constant site of infection.  I had been misdiagnosed at Mayo!  I was put immediately on an antibiotic (we had tried others in the past but not specific for the kidneys) and within 4 days all of my symptoms were gone.  Almost as suddenly as my trial began, it was over! It appears I can manage this condition by remaining continually on antibiotics, as that is a safer option over surgery, but that is a small price to pay to have my life back!

I look back at the last few sentences of Benjamin’s essay “Don’t give up. Keep on going. You can get through your difficulty no matter how hard that trial is. Your persistence will win.” I am amazed at the truth in his words.

Emily Hodson is originally from Shelley, Idaho where she grew up riding horses and performing the piano. Emily, 35, and husband Dan, a podiatric surgeon, live in Great Falls, Montana. Their home lies along the Missouri River where their 3 young boys, Benjamin (9), Nathan (5), and Lincoln (3) enjoy searching for crawfish, clams, and tadpoles. Emily has her Masters in Accounting and worked for several large CPA firms. After the birth of her first child, she decided to leave her career and become a stay-at-home mom. Emily and her family were introduced last year to the PTA’s Reflections program and Benjamin’s entry surprised them all by winning!