When Jen’s youngest child, Caleb, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, it not only changed Caleb’s life, but hers as well.
Coming out of the doctor’s office, she remembers, “You get nothing—you’re just diagnosed.” All she got was a head full of unanswered questions.
How would her two-year-old son live in the world? What kind of childhood would he have?
At age 3, Caleb entered Head Start at Spokane’s Logan Elementary School. There, his needs were met just like all his other preschool friends. He got the opportunity to have fun and learn and his classmates got the chance “to feel o.k. around someone who rolls around in a chair,” says Jen.
The Head Start program included physical and occupational therapy for Caleb, which the whole class participated in. Caleb’s classmates saw that their world could accommodate people of different abilities. A “spectacular” teacher in the preschool classroom, says Jen, made sure Caleb could fully participate.
To have a say in the pre-K classroom’s decisions, Jen joined the parent advisory council of the school’s Head Start program. A fellow parent invited her to come visit her elected representatives in Olympia at the Children’s Alliance Have a Heart for Kids Day in 2010. She went, speaking up for high-quality early learning that meets kids, of all backgrounds and abilities, right where they’re at.
Jen attended the Children’s Alliance Advocacy Camp in 2012, where, she says, her eyes were opened to the experiences of racially diverse groups of people in her hometown and all across the state. As a white woman living all her life in Spokane, which the Census records as 86 percent white, “We do a very good job of pretending everything is fine. But if you ask, you will find out that there are challenges.”
Caleb and Jen have traveled along the same path: he as a child “who uses wheels, not legs, to get around,” and she as a mother speaking for her son and for all parents who are facing life’s unforeseen circumstances. She now has a voice for kids and families all across the state, as a member of the state Department of Early Learning’s Early Learning Advisory Council. Appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee, Jen speaks from a parent’s point of view as the state works to build a high-quality early learning system for children ages birth to 5.
With Caleb now attending public school, her advocacy is widening from a child’s first learning experience to his experience of K-12. “Kids come to school every day with backpacks so heavy with the challenges and mess in their lives,” she says. And yet, kids and families have reason for hope—when legislators can hear their voices and make smart public investments.
“When parents feel that there are options for them, that there are people who care, then we can turn things around.”
The path she’s traveling doesn’t offer a U-turn, because once you find the power of advocating for kids, it’s an honor and an obligation to use that power, says Jen: “Once you get going, why would you stop?”