Motivated Moms

Meet five ordinary moms who took matters into their own hands to better the lives of children and parents.
Feb 06, 2013

Helping Sick Children Express Themselves

Three years ago, Heather Surface, now 39, was just like any other mom who has faced the daunting task of finding a unique way to entertain her kids in the car. Heather, who owns her own public relations and marketing firm, would drive through her hometown of Jacksonville, FL, with her sons, now 8 and 11, and take turns pointing out some of the historic landmarks of the city. Eventually they began going through the alphabet, associating Jacksonville landmarks with each letter. Heather and her boys gradually sketched out quite a master list of words.

Flash to a rainy day in 2007. Heather and her sons were stuck inside in the rain, and the boys were antsy. “I had a light-bulb moment and suggested we create a story from the master list of words,” Heather remembers. “We decided to create a book using clip art and give it to family and friends for Christmas.” Everyone loved the book, which Heather called Jacksonville from A to Z.

That’s when Heather had another revelation. Why not take their words and story and invite critically ill children at their local children’s hospital to illustrate it? In March 2008, Heather approached Art with a Heart in Healthcare, a nonprofit that provides personalized fine art experiences to hospitalized children. The coordinators loved the idea. “They wanted the children to feel the sense of civic pride that comes when you see your work displayed,” she says. From there, the project took off. The critically ill children, ranging in age from 4 to 20, spent one month illustrating their pages for the book, and more than half of the net proceeds from the book, which has reached thousands, has been donated to Art with a Heart, as well as other children’s charities.

The project not only taught Heather’s sons a lesson in the importance of reaching out to others, it also fueled a new career path for Heather. She recently launched Books by Kids, which will help other communities publish similar books. Proceeds will benefit children’s charities. “Some of the patients would forego their pain medication, they were so engrossed in this project,” she says. “One child sadly passed away a few days after she created a painting for the book, but her legacy lives on. I want to help other communities create projects like this that are so beneficial to all kids.”

Rallying Moms to Protect the Environment

Before Christine Gardner, 43, heard a lecture given by Senator John Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, in August 2007, she hadn’t thought much about environmental health issues. But something in her clicked that day. “This lecture really caught my attention, because I have a 9-year-old daughter, and we’d done a lot of mommy-daughter manicures together, and the lecture briefly referred to toxins in nail polish,” says Christine, also the stay-at-home mom of two sons, ages 3 and 7.

Gardner left the lecture worried about what she’d just heard and determined to learn all she could about the cosmetics and food industry. Then she began researching. She read about 20 books and spent more than 100 hours researching online, which provided a baseline for her to do a bit of “playground parenting.” “I’d ask parents in the sandbox whether they fed their kids organic foods and what they do about plastic water bottles,” says Christine, who lives in San Francisco. “I wanted to ask others how aware they were of our increasingly toxic world. A lot of the parents had bits of knowledge but no one had tied it together in a way that connected the dots.”

Gardner decided to be that person. She put together a 19-page, single-spaced speech and, in December 2007, delivered it at her daughter’s school. “I was terrified. I explained that I’m just a mom, and that everything I was about to say was from books I’d read,” she recalls. The response was tremendous. She started getting calls from moms who wanted advice on what products to buy, and since then, she has been invited to speak in front of other groups regularly.

Last March, Christine launched, a website that aims to raise awareness about environmental health issues and voice concerns about the community, including, for example, advocacy work she and other moms did last year when she heard that the city was planning to spray pesticides to eradicate a moth in the Bay Area. “I started out with 5 moms and eventually gathered 150 moms to meet with senators and attorneys in city hall,” she recalls. In addition, she has written a joyful kids’ book, A Moment of Quiet Is Nothing to Fear, that’s all about slowing down and embracing the magic of life’s precious quiet moments. In keeping with her life’s work, she printed the book on environmentally friendly paper. Other books will follow. For Christine, all of these endeavors are so close to her heart that it feels like fun, not work. “I never thought that speech would launch the rest of my career,” she says.

Saluting Special-Needs Kids—and Their Parents 

Ellen*, 41, is a woman with an inimitable ability to see the humor in even the bleakest of situations. But when her son, Max, had a stroke at birth that led to cerebral palsy, it was next to impossible for her to imagine how she’d handle life as a parent of a child with special needs.

Max is now 6 and Ellen is leading the charge for a better understanding of what it is to parent an exceptional child with disabilities. Last fall, she launched To The Max, a blog that’s becoming a thriving virtual community for parents of kids with all kinds of special needs—a place to trade experiences, information, resources, and most importantly, laughter. “Raising a child with special needs can feel very lonely,” says Ellen, an editor who’s also mom to 4-year-old Sabrina. “I’ve made amazing friends in cyberspace.”

Ellen blogs at night and on weekends. “I started the blog as a way to reach out to other parents who could relate to what I was going through and give them a way to do the same,” she says. “I saw the blog as a place where I could reveal my most raw thoughts and feelings and celebrate Max’s successes, too, because there have been many. And I wanted to share some laughs. You need to laugh. Always.” Another important goal: to share the lessons she’s learned. “Stuff like, quit comparing your child to ‘normal’ kids—it’ll just burn you out—and instead focus on the progress your child is making,” she says. “To be able to share thoughts with other moms at 11 p.m. in my pajamas is a dream!” Since the launch of her blog, Ellen has written for United Cerebral Palsy and enlisted therapists as well as people with cerebral palsy to write guest posts on her blog. “I’d love for my audience to keep expanding,” she says. “Together we are stronger and wiser—and saner!—than any one of us is alone. I also hope that the blog continues to attract parents of typically developing kids. I want them to see that children with special needs may look different, sound different, and act different, but they are still kids.”

*Prefers not to use her real last name or hometown

Defying Diabetes Stereotypes

For Michelle Alswager, 39, diabetes had always been a haunting specter; her father’s siblings all had Type 1 diabetes. So when her son Jesse was diagnosed with the disease at age 3, Michelle was prepared, but still shocked. “Like most moms, I went into a little bit of denial,” she recalls. But she also made up her mind that day that she would be completely proactive. “I’m a very positive person and I decided Jesse and I were going to make a difference.”

They’ve done that in a variety of ways. Michelle has served on the board of directors for several different diabetes foundations in Wisconsin, where she lives with her son Joey, 8; daughter Samantha, 15; and Jesse, now 12. Jesse has appeared before Congress as part of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s (JDRF) Children’s Congress, and Michelle created a blue silicone bracelet that said “cure diabetes,” which eventually made more than $2 million for the JDRF.

But it was an almost superhuman achievement that spurred her on to the next stage of her mission. After completing her first Ironman triathlon—a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run—in September 2006, she dreamed of filming a documentary about people with Type 1 diabetes competing in an Ironman triathlon. She tackled that dream and raised the money for her project herself. Triabetes, a 90-minute documentary, wrapped last fall. Releasing in July, it will be shown at film festivals and diabetes conventions and appear on free media on the Internet. “When people with diabetes are physically active, it sends a message that people with diabetes can do any sport they set their mind to,” Michelle says. “I want a mom of a 3-year-old to go on the Internet and find us and say, ‘My kid can still do anything.’ It’s hope.”

Fighting for Healthier Cafeteria Food

When Kendra Dahlen’s son, Kyle, now 18, was in middle school, she was sure of one thing: The food being served at his school cafeteria in the North Thurston Public Schools in Olympia, WA, was subpar. But getting the food to improve was a bigger task than she ever expected. “It took three years to effect change,” says Kendra, who runs her own consulting firm and is also co-chair of the Healthy Youth Task Force for North Thurston Public Schools in Olympia.

Kendra spent the first year creating a task force to research how to bring better foods to the cafeteria and develop a multi-year plan. The second year involved inviting students, administrators, and even the community to weigh in on what changes needed to be made in the cafeteria’s offerings—specifically what changes they would like to see in the foods served in schools throughout the district. “We conducted surveys and focus groups and met with principals, teachers, and parents,” Kendra recalls.

Finally, in the third year, all that hard work paid off. “Nearly all the students’ recommendations that were obtained during our focus groups have been incorporated by the district’s food and nutrition staff,” she says. This means that things like 100 percent fruit juices, granola-topped yogurt parfaits, and a variety of freshly made salads and sandwiches are now featured menu items. Recent focus groups with students elicited compliments about the quality of food now being served. Still, this remains a work-in-progress. “Vendors that stock the vending machines are inconsistent and require ongoing monitoring and education,” she says. And there’s more work on the horizon. “The next phase is engaging students to help them make healthy choices and become physically active for a lifetime,” she says. “Our work is never done, but it’s been very creative and rewarding for me.”

Priceless Advice 

We asked each of our five moms to offer advice on how to persevere in a cause you care about:

Heather Surface: “Start somewhere and follow your heart. When I came up with this idea for a book that would be illustrated by critically ill children, it was hard to take that first step, but the best advice I can give is to just jump in!”

Christine Gardner: “Find something where you feel you can walk the walk. That’ll make it easier to have the confidence to share what you know with others. Also, start with the places you’re familiar with, like your child’s school, the company you work at, etc. I relied on feedback from people I knew when I first started out. Then I was able to move beyond my comfort zone with more confidence.”

Ellen: “When I started my blog, I kept thinking, what should I write about first? What design should I choose? How am I going to find the time? Then, one Sunday morning, I randomly woke up at 4 a.m., and I thought, I’m seizing this time and doing it. And I did.”

Michelle Alswager:  “One mom can make a difference. You think that when you meet with a legislator, you’re just one voice, but you’re actually a loud voice if you stand in front of them.”

Kendra Dahlen: “If you want to get involved in something in your community, assemble a group of people who have the skills and expertise that are needed to get things done. And always do your research. This way, you’ll understand what the best practices are in the area you’re interested in working on. This will make you feel more knowledgeable about how things work, especially if you’re new to it.”

Raising Kids