Camp Verde Mom becomes Community Activist for Parents of Special Needs Kids
When Teddy Armstrong’s son was in first grade, his emotional difficulties often caused him to leave school early, forcing Armstrong to leave work to pick up her son. Armstrong’s son has autism, and when he had problems at school, he was simply removed from the classroom, sometimes for the entire day. “Parenting alone is difficult,” Armstrong said. “It was just really a scary time in our life.” In her small hometown of Camp Verde, the resources for special needs parents were almost nonexistent, and Armstrong often spent those days out of school at the library. In her son’s first years at school, Armstrong’s days were filled with anxiety and uncertainty. “I was just watching him and filled with worry” Armstrong said. “I [didn’t] know what to do about the situation. [I thought], ‘Why can’t people take care of him the way he deserves to be taken care of?’”
Then in 2014, the Camp Verde Library received an LSTA grant called “Resources and Support for Families Facing Autism.” The grant partnered with the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center (SARRC) and brought professionals to Camp Verde to provide free training to parents, educators, and healthcare professionals on how to adapt their work to a special needs population. The grant also provided the library with books on autism, sensory toys for children on the spectrum, and created a local support group for special needs parents.
Armstrong started attending the support group, where she met other parents feeling just like her. “It was a bunch of very lost and scared families at first,” Armstrong said. “[We’d say things] like, ‘Hi, my name is Teddy and I feel very alone, and I don’t know what to do.” But as the members began to find comfort and support from one another, the atmosphere changed. “It’s like our little secret group and we meet out there in the back and we have food and we…cry all night long and we laugh.” Armstrong said. “We have a very tight group of parents now.”
The group also hosted speakers who helped the parents visualize a better future for their children. In addition to researchers, the group also invited adults on the spectrum to speak about their professions, education, and social lives. “So many families just think these kids are going to live at home their whole life,” said Armstrong. “[This program] gives people hope and direction. [They leave saying,] ‘Wow, my kid can do that?’”
The support group is now in its third year, and the participating parents have transformed from seeking respite to becoming community advocates who are working to make Camp Verde a better place to raise special needs kids. One parent has just started the first Special Olympics team in Camp Verde. “We have this solid group of moms now,” said Armstrong. “They’re rock stars. And they came in crawling.”
As for Armstrong, whose son is now an instructor at a Taekwondo dojo and working on his second degree black belt, she has become the go-to person for special needs parents in Camp Verde. She runs a blog and regularly takes phone calls from recent transplants to help them find resources for special needs kids. “It’s really cool how it’s become who I am,” Armstrong said. “[This program] gave me empowerment to be able to go up to someone I don’t know and say, ‘Hey, it’s gonna be okay. ‘Cause we’re all going to take care of each other.’ And I never would have done that… But people need it. Moms need it. And that’s what this did for me.”