Even working moms can do it…

Diane Kearns is a working mom with three children – Beck, four-months-old; and twins Dean and Vivian, both five years old. Diane is also an active volunteer at Sammy’s House, an Austin nonprofit child development center for children with special needs. I’ve always considered full-time working mothers who volunteer to be extraordinary people.  “I’ve been involved with Sammy’s House since the twins were about one, and volunteering for them is definitely a labor of love,” says Diane.

What makes Diane even more special, though, is her complete acceptance  of and peace with her son Dean’s condition. Dean was born with cerebral palsy, and Diane has had to be extra resourceful in finding support. “My son has a disability and that’s just the way it is,” she says. “It doesn’t define him. It’s just a challenge that we together have to help him overcome.”

Early on, Diane and her family found a lot of support through Sammy’s House. The organization seems to have found a place in Diane’s heart, and she somehow finds the time to give back to Sammy’s House, volunteering for the past four years and, most recently, chairing the annual fundraiser.

I was fascinated with Diane’s story because, despite the fact that she deals with much more than I can imagine, she seems extremely energetic and positive. She let me ask her a few questions. I think her story can inspire others to find the time to volunteer – especially when they find the right organization.

1. In 2002, you had twins, Dean and Vivian. Dean was born with cerebral palsy and a visual impairment but Vivian was not. At what point did you reach out for help? 

We were fortunate in that because the twins were born premature, and in the NICU, standard operating procedure was that babies get cranial ultrasounds before they’re discharged. The doctor noticed brain damage on his final ultrasound, so she referred us to a pediatric neurologist (who gave us the diagnosis of CP), and wrote a prescription for physical therapy, and referred us to Early Childhood Intervention (ECI), who sent out a case worker who evaluated Dean, which led to additional therapy services paid through Travis County (that’s since changed — now payment is based in income…on a sliding scale). That snowballed into Dean getting evaluated for vision services, which are paid through the school district (AISD). So, we were fortunate that the services came to us in the early years. 

2. What was your involvement in the beginning and how has it changed? 

We got involved with Sammy’s House when our nanny quit (the twins were about 11 months old) and I didn’t have childcare for the twins. I was referred by one of our therapists to Sammy’s House…one of their primary services is a childcare center for children with special needs. I called the center and spoke to their director, Isabel Huerta, who spent roughly an hour talking to me. There were no spots in the classes (at the time, they could only handle 12 children due to space limitations), but she put me on the waiting list.

A few months later, I called Isabel again when Dean needed a wheelchair and our insurance company refused to pay for one (it took 9 months to get approved). She loaned us the exact version of what we eventually got, and my husband and I were so grateful, we started volunteering at respite care, and then on the fundraisers. I joined the board in January of 2007, and am now the committee chair on fundraising. 

3. When you heard about Sammy’s House, what made you want to be a part of it beyond being one of their clients? 

There are so many reasons! First, it was because their executive director is such a dynamic, caring person. She reached out to me when I first met her, spent time with me (apparently she could see that I needed it!). Later on, it was because they were the underdogs. The school was in a tiny house in Hyde Park, and could only serve 12 kids. Several neighbors had an issue with special needs kids being “in their neighborhood”.

They operate on such a shoe string budget, I knew that I could generate exposure and raise funds. Now, I do it because I know I can make a difference in the community…for all the special needs kids & their families, and everyone else…to promote inclusion, acceptance, and diversity. 

4. What are some of the ways Sammy’s House has helped Dean more than if he were not enrolled? 

Sammy’s House operates a “reverse-inclusion” model. In the daycare and pre-K program, there are more special needs kids than there are typical kids. Dean got to spend his days with kids of varying abilities and I think it helps him see that there are a lot of other kids just like him. That he’s not so different.

Want to know more about Sammy’s House? Visit the site and let them know you support their work.


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