Nonprofit helps families with special needs navigate school, health systems

VelaFamilies

Like most parents, Eric and Rosa Lott would do anything for their son. But with his complicated medical issues, including Down’s Syndrome and autism, they felt unprepared to take on the complex medical and special education systems faced by families with a special needs child.

“When we used to go to meetings at the schools, the teachers and the therapists would just tell us what to do and we would say yes to everything,” remembered Eric Lott. “Now we question everything they say.”

The difference for the Lott family – and for hundreds of other families across Central Texas – has been Vela, an Austin-born nonprofit that provides education and support services to families with special needs children. Founded by a former speech and language therapist, Maria Hernandez, Vela relies on a group-learning model that makes other parents of kids with special needs the leaders. “We believe you learn best from other people who look and talk like you,” said Hernandez. “Maybe the person who’s teaching doesn’t have a fancy degree, but she probably has been up at 3 a.m. trying to put their kids back to bed. These parent leaders are using our curriculum but sharing their own lived experience.”

When a family receives a diagnosis, Hernandez says, they’re often given a list of resources available to them, including therapists and special education support. “But what’s missing for parents is information on how to activate those,” she said. “Parents rely on schools, hoping they’re doing what they’re supposed to.”

But in Texas, schools and educators have been restricting access to special education services for years. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Education determined that Texas had violated federal law by effectively capping the number of students who received special education services. Schools and educators were found to lack knowledge of federal law requiring them to provide certain services. This March, Austin ISD announced a new executive director of special education, which Hernandez hopes will lead to a shift in the district’s approach.

Hernandez said, “How do you ask for the services your child needs in a way that’s collaborative and builds relationships? Not everyone can do that,” especially, she added, if that family has an added obstacle of poverty or language and cultural differences. “In our courses, we role play all of that so that as a parent, you know your rights and you know what services are available to you.”

Currently, families must travel to Vela in East Austin to participate in its programs, and Vela sees families from 55 different zip codes across Central Texas. To meet the need, Veka’s next phase of growth will be to extend services to regions beyond Austin. On May 4, Vela is partnering with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas to offer workshops for families served by Killeen ISD, which has been under fire in recent years for not providing appropriate services to students with special needs. Partnerships like this, Hernandez says, are the key to expanding services.

For the Lotts, Vela has helped them see a vision for their son’s future. “We want him to go to college,” said Eric Lott. “We want him to be successful, and we’re starting right now to make that happen.”

PHOTO: Graduates of Vela’s most recent Special Education course for parents, led by parent facilitator Jolene Sanders, herself a parent of a child with autism.

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