When Maryland mom Debbie Sahlin’s son, Ryan, was 11 months old, he suffered a traumatic brain injury after an accident at a golf course. “I tried to tell myself that his injury would eventually heal and our life would resume as normal,” she said. “That never happened. The son I knew was gone forever.”
Debbie let go of some of her dreams for her son — that he would play sports, go to college, have a career. But she didn’t give up hope that he could still live a worthwhile life and become a valued and much loved part of their family.
Debbie’s experience with Ryan opened her eyes to the challenges faced by other parents whose children have disabilities. In 2010, Debbie left her job (she led her own printing and design company for 15 years) and created the Lollipop Kids Foundation to focus on children with special needs, like Ryan, who is now 20 years old (she also has a 17-year-old daughter, Emily.)
Lollipop Kids provides opportunities so both the children and their families can come together, not only for social events, but also for emotional and physical support. Caring for a child with disabilities is physically demanding, so the organization’s ARTbeat program features a core strengthening exercise regimen for parents/caregivers while their children participate in facilitated art projects. The group also developed a summer accessible sailing program, and refurbishes and redistributes donated medical equipment for those in need.
Children with disabilities encounter prejudice – sometimes subtle, other times overt. Getting out the word and advocating for these children and their families has become Debbie’s passion. She knows firsthand what these children have to offer. Over the years, Ryan has taught Debbie a great deal about love, life and perseverance. That’s the message she and her foundation want others to hear.
Q&A with Debbie Sahlin
Q: What are your long-term goals for your Foundation?
A: We hope to replicate our Rockville therapeutic center, with all existing programs in Fairfax County, Baltimore City and Washington within the next five to seven years. The Rockville site is a 2,500-square-foot therapeutic center that opened in December 2012 and houses all of our programs (except community outings and accessible sailing). It includes a warehouse area for our durable medical equipment closet, and in January, we are launching an exercise program for children with disabilities.
Q: What lessons have you learned from what you’ve been through with your son?
A: The biggest lesson I have learned through our tragedy is that, in every circumstance, I have a choice. I have learned to pause in the difficult moments and make a choice that has positive consequences. For example, adapting to a situation that I might forgo because of the obstacles involved, which would in turn cause my daughter, Emily, to miss out. I have found when I tackle these challenges, everyone benefits – especially me. It empowers me to try something a bit more challenging the next time something arises.
Q: What advice do you give to parents who don’t have a special needs child?
A: From my experience, most parents of children without disabilities don’t understand something obvious – parents of special needs children love their children (even with all their “stuff”) as much as they love their children without disabilities. We are not sad about our situation, and our children are quite amazing – if one takes the time to look past their difference. Our children typically don’t exhibit any type of insecurity, therefore are very pure in spirit and inspiring to be around.
Q: How can other parents help?
A: It’s quite easy, really. When we are out in public places, smile at us rather than shy away. This simple action makes us feel accepted and included. And, please, always answer your child’s questions, even if you are uncomfortable and afraid of offending us. Chances are we will be more offended by stares and unanswered questions. We know children have questions centered in harmless curiosity – they just want to understand the difference. So, tell them!
Q: What advice would you give to other parents in your position?
A: Don’t look too far into the future – the uncertainty tends to overwhelm us. Take one day at a time. Never lose hope. And, never (ever) compare your child to anyone else’s. Each of our children, regardless of ability, has a unique and special gift to offer the world. Find that gift and celebrate it!
Q: Who is your hero/role model?
A: My children are my heroes. Ryan is my inspiration and Emily is the light in my life. Ryan’s tenacity helps me keep moving forward, even at times when I want to give up. When life gets confusing and chaotic, Emily is often my voice of reason. She is mature beyond her years and brightens my life many times without even knowing.
Q: Whom do you turn to for support when you’re having a bad day?
A: I have a handful of mentors in my life that I call on when my days are troubled and I need encouragement. I also find great comfort in meeting new families served by the Foundation. These families have helped me in ways that words simply cannot express.
Q: What’s your proudest accomplishment?
A: My proudest accomplishment is finding the courage to pick up the broken pieces of my life after Ryan’s accident, gather them together and use them to create the Lollipop Kids Foundation.
Q: Where do you like to go to relax/unwind?
A: As a single mom for a child with severe disabilities and a 17-year-old daughter, I certainly must find time to relax and unwind. I spend much of my free time either running on the C&O Canal or taking long walks there with Ryan and his service dog. The peacefulness there enables me to clear my mind and rejuvenate.
Q: What are your holiday plans?
A: We are hosting Thanksgiving this year at our home. We will have friends and family over to eat, relax and play games. We also host an open house on Christmas Eve for friends and family.
20 Southlawn Court, Ste. D
Information and resources on the Foundation’s “Smile, Don’t Stare Campaign” can be found at www.lollipopkidsfoundation.org/smile-dont-stare/
TEXT: Charlene Giannetti. Charlene Giannetti is the editor of Woman Around Town, a website for women in New York and Washington, D.C., and the book publishing company, WAT-AGE Publishing LLC. Her new book is Parenting in a Social Media World.