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In this episode, we listen to an advocate with MomBiz Boss and a mother of children who experience developmental and mental health challenges. She speaks about being a mother of color and the experiences of raising children with both visible and invisible disabilities.
Advocacy organizations discussed in the Podcast:
National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health – A national family-run organization linking more than 120 chapters and state organizations focused on the issues of children and youth with emotional, behavioral, or mental health needs and their families. It was conceived in Arlington, Virginia in February, 1989 by a group of 18 people determined to make a difference in the way the system works. https://www.ffcmh.org/
Younger Years and Beyond – A local chapter of National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health that focuses on mental health and behavioral health challenges for children starting at pre-school through beyond. https://www.facebook.com/theyoungeryearsandbeyond/
Zaria’s Song – We Provide Support & Resources to Parents and Caregivers with Children Experiencing Physical, Cognitive, Behavioral and Mental Health Challenge http://ateducational.wixsite.com/zariassong
Women’s Voice: Welcome to “Ask the Advocate” where mental health advocates share their journeys to advocacy and what it has meant for their lives. “Ask the Advocate” is a Mothers on the Frontline production. Today, we will hear from Shanta, a mother of three, a clinician, and an advocate. This interview was recorded at the 2017 National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health Conference in Orlando, Florida. During this recording, you can hear noise in the background from another event in the hotel. Please don’t let these noises distract you from Shanta’s story.
Dionne: Hello. Thank you very much for agreeing to do this. Would you like to introduce yourself?
Teresa: Sure. Thank you very much for having me. I’m Teresa Wright Johnson, and I will say that I’m a mother first and then an advocate. I believe motherhood is very challenging as a business, so I’m kind of known as an advocate and a MOMBiz Boss, and we’ll talk about that later. But I’m a mom of children that were born with developmental challenges as well as physical challenges and children that have mental health challenges, learning disabilities, and more. And I advocate for them.
Dionne: And you advocate for them. So Teresa, tell us a little bit about your advocacy journey.
Teresa: So my journey began– I’m the mother of four children. I bore four children. Unfortunately– but still, fortunately, have one living child. So I had several children that died very early on when they were born. And then my other two children were also preemies. In coming– you know this is November. This is National Pre-maturity Birth Month– Awareness Month. A lot of people don’t know that. And with premature children, sometimes you have greater risk factors. And some of the risk factors that happened and that were indicated with my first child who was Zaria– and I have do so much for Zaria in her name. She was born with various disabilities, more physical and cognitive. She had cerebral palsy as well as metabolic disorders like mitochondrial syndrome. She also had seizures, low-birth weight, feeding issues, mobility issues, just so many different issues. But guess what? That did not sway me. I wanted to be a mother. And once I found out I was going to be a mother to Zaria, I started to getting training at the hospital–
Dionne: Oh, wow,
Teresa: — so that I could be the best advocate for her. So over the years with Zaria, I started my own support group for mothers of color called Special Treasures, because I feel that our children are not just special-needs children. They are special treasures. They are treasures that open us up, expand us, push us way beyond our comfort zones, and stuff. And so I did that with Zaria. Zaria, unfortunately, passed away.
Dionne: I’m sorry.
Teresa: She had a seizure at school and passed away some years ago. However, the journey of her from birth to seven years old has got me to help hundreds of thousands of women and families to different organizations: speaking, training, coaching, learning, and advocating. And I would have never done that without that journey of Zaria. So, Zaria had all those special needs. And she also opened me up to stuff that I never knew of. I knew about special needs a little bit because my Mom when I was little worked in group homes. And I didn’t even know that was a group home I was going to because back in the day, I ended up having a single-Mom that was divorced. You could go about with your Mom. But that compassion that was instilled to me as a child, it really helped me with my child with special needs. Then the special needs group and different organizations– I’ve worked with Mocha Moms, which is a national organization for women of color that put their children and their families first with children with special needs. That was my goal when I was doing things for there. But then, Zaria had a little sister named Jade that was born. And Jade was a few years younger. But when Jade was born, again, she was another premature birth. So, I have to be on bed rest, all these different things to have children. And when Jade was born, she was typical. She was just a low-weight, birth-weight baby. But then, as she started getting older, she wasn’t crawling. She took a long time to walk. I learned about a lot of different things with Zaria that helped me with Jade. And so Jade ended up being very physically functioning. But emotionally, she was the baby that never stopped crying that I took to the hospital, and she didn’t have colic. She was the baby when I would leave with people – her godmother or whatever – they would say, “Um, call me. She’s still crying.” “Ah, okay.” She was the baby banging her crib up against the wall. Not just crying to get out. She was banging it. So, this led me from the journey with Zaria ended up getting all these certifications for special needs– being a Special Needs Trainor for the Department of Development and Disabilities or Babies Can’t Wait, The Early Intervention for Georgia for Zaria. But then, transitioning to Jade was solely different, because she didn’t have developmental disabilities. I wasn’t working with IEPs anymore. That’s when I learned about the 504 Plans and all that stuff. So, me getting educated to help my children, starting off with Zaria, helped me to educate other people, but they helped me even more for Jade. And so now I have Jade, and she doesn’t mind. Jade says– you know what I can always say is that Jade experiences ADHD and some behavioral challenges but highly functioning. Has been placed in AP classes, a very smart girl. But if I wouldn’t never had the experience of Zaria and all these training and support that we get from other mothers and organizations we just don’t know, I would never know how to function or help Jade. And that’s why I’m here today at the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health Yearly Conference is because of Jade. She’s my ‘why’ for this. And so I’ve been able to advocate now for parents that have children with dual-diagnosis whether it’s developmentally or mental health. I definitely don’t want to be a therapist or anything of that nature. But I have so much training that I know that God, and whomever you want to call it, gave it to me to help my children and other people. And I just can’t imagine not sharing that. And I can’t imagine parents not understanding, once they learned how to advocate for their children, they are their child’s number one advocate, because nobody’s going to advocate for your baby – that part of you, like you.
Dionne: Yes. So as a Mom advocate, what would you say if you had to talk to– and you can fill in this blank with whoever you were addressing one group– and I know you’ve addressed a lot of groups. What would you want them to know about your experience as a mother of children with mental health challenges?
Teresa: Wow, so many things you want them to know. The one is that Mom– that guilt you might have, the, “So why is my child like this?” Or, “How are people going to look at my child,” and all those things. I want them to know that find the treasure in your child, because those hard days when– maybe you have a child that experiences some behaviors or disabilities and is a little bit slower, if you can have that treasure kind of in your head, those days when they don’t seem like a treasure [laughter], when they don’t seem like a treasure, you have something to refer back to because even though it may be hard the way that you have to deal with them, how they deal with you, as society looks at them, they’re your gift. And you have to find the gift that they are for you and the treasure in them.
Dionne: You talked about this because– and the days that they seem like that you are just questioning the universe. Can you tell us about one of those days? And then–
Teresa: Oh, I definitely can.
Dionne: — what and how you worked through?
Teresa: I definitely can. One, I worked through it because I have a great support system. I engaged with other mothers that may experience some of the same things, so that I have someone to vent to one that understands me. Learned that very early on with Zaria. When my friends with typical two-year-olds would talk to me about their two-year old but my two-year old Zaria was really still at three, four months, they couldn’t understand. So, go seek out those supports that are particularly going to be able to support you. So, even with Mocha Moms, it was not a special needs thing. But it was for a stay-at-home moms at that time, at one point for Black mothers. That is who I am. So, I’m going to go seek them out. So with the child that is especially– in a particular experience, one of my children is very– the emotional part is very hard. Sometimes, she has so many things going on that it is overwhelming for me. I was just sitting in a train and then I was sounding– though I’m trained to be– a Mental Health instructor, a Certified Panic Peer Specialist, a Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper, all that, when it’s my baby, it’s a total different thing. I remember those formats. I remember those structures. I remember those systems. But it’s not the same. So, you got to make sure you have support because there are days when I have to walk away sometimes crying from my child. I mean she hadn’t anything to me physically. But my heart is hurt because you see what they’re going through. And they might not even be able to see it. And you know the treasure you have. But right now, it looks more like the garbage truck. And I would say the amount of support you have is very important. And just being real. And remembering where is that sacred space, that treasure, where you have to think back about it, because sometimes you want to just throw in the towel, because we don’t show motherhood being difficult. We show motherhood with this pretty baby and the little kids outside playing. And when you have a child with a need, you have fewer days of that and more days of questioning, “Why me? Why my child?”
So I think to have that support system, to be able to vent with other women that understand or can listen to you, groups that understand you, and the same for your child is important. So my number one piece would be have a support system. Have somewhere you can go. And then of course remembering that treasure because even though it’s H-E Double Hockey Sticks or whatever you call it [laughter], we have to figure out a way to go back to the gift in it, because it’s so very hard especially with the mental health versus the developmental disability. Especially in certain cultures, being a mother of color myself when I had my daughter with cerebral palsy, it was easier for people to see, because she could walk sometimes. She can do stuff. But when they see my child over here having a meltdown, “You better get that baby get a beating. Get her shit. Got no manners,” or whatever. That invisible disability is so hard. So everything– I know all women can do it. But when you have a child with a need, sometimes you got to put on a tough skin, because people say things. So that support, that treasure, and that tough skin altogether.
Dionne: That brings up a good and important point because especially as mothers of color, so many of us, we are experiencing not just our own internal, what I call your internal voice. But then, you literally have the external voice telling you what you should be doing, what you should know. How do you advocate for yourself as a mother because you’re Fearless Mom advocate. I know you’re a fearless mom. How do you advocate for yourself?
Teresa: For taking care of myself?
Dionne: Yes, taking care– it could be taking care of yourself or standing up for you.
Teresa: Again, one, you have to make– write down your own rules. Who and what do you stand for? What’s important for you because I’m Teresa. I might not look like the other Teresa down the road that’s an African-American woman. What are my values? What’s important to me? And what’s important to me is that I live up to who I authentically am and who my family is. That’s one. And then, two, being able to really sit and think about what really is important, what’s not. You know the picture? Because we’re women. I don’t care what color you are. A lot of us fall into this picture thing. And guess what? How much do I really care about that picture or what it– I care more about reality and being happy. So that’s one. But as a fearless advocate, I really try to think about major– I don’t really care what anybody else thinks, because I know what’s going on inside of my house and inside of my mind and what I have to take care of. Like being here at the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health Event. A lot of people– they don’t understand that. But I don’t care. It’s about my need. So have put on that tough skin again the way that I, the Fearless advocate, that takes care of me as I think of myself. I put on a tough skin. I do take care of myself, self-care. One of the presentations I speak about sometimes is life beyond advocacy, because at some point you can’t just advocate for your child and do everything for your child as you want to sit over here, and you’re going to have a breakdown or something, too. So that tough skin and not worrying about what others think. And taking care of you and your family. But remembering yourself, too, because so many mothers forget about themselves.
Dionne: What’s your self-care pleasure?
Teresa: My self-care pleasure is– oh, I have so many [laughter] because I love that stuff. But my self-care pleasure really is just quiet space because I’m talker. And I’m always with people. So if I can go on a trip and be away or if I can go– I just recently started doing yoga and meditation. And that has been great, wonderful a way to do it. You might not have funds or something to do things or time– a quick hot shower with some music. And I think really music is one of my main things and ways of self-care, because you can get whatever mode you want. Dancing. I think we think about self-care as if it has to be the spa all the time. And it doesn’t. Or it has to be all these extra things. Just little things to take care of our self because to be able follow these advocacy and these children that experience various needs, they experience those. That’s not who they are. And that’s why I say remember that treasure. Remember who it is. As a matter of fact, my daughter’s name is Jade for a reason, because she’s a treasure. Let me remember. She’s a treasure [laughter]. So–
Dionne: I like that.
Teresa: So you have to figure it out.
Dionne: So I have two last questions. And then I want you to tell us a little bit about your organization and the shout out for your organization, where we can reach you, and everything. What’s your most laughable moment? Because a lot of these, for me, one of my self-care pleasures is just being able to sit back. And sometimes just laugh at what’s going on. What’s your most laughable moment?
Teresa: When your child that experiences a mental health challenge or behavioral challenges calls you on stuff, that’s the most laughable moment. They have to tell you to slow down or tell you to do something. And you hear them repeat back how you talk to them or deal with them. That is the most laughable moment, because I do really want to tell them, “No.” But really guess what, they got this somebody from somebody. And it might not be that you have a mental health diagnosis. But some of the stuff that we complain about our children or concerned about they are mirroring our personalities. And so that for me is the most laughable moment. So for me, I’m always moving and shaking. And my daughter, she’s a mover and shaker. But she’s a little slower. You have to prompt her like I do this or that. But she has to tell me, “Mommy, you need to slow down.” Surprised yesterday at the conference she said, “I’m surprised you didn’t lose your cellphone yet [laughter].” So that was like, “Oh, okay.” I said, “Oh, okay. Well, you know when I’m not with you…” because this is our first conference she’s been to as an attendee where she’s engaging by herself. So I said, “Well, Mommy try this all the time. I have my phone all the time.” She said, “Well, I’m surprised [laughter].”
Dionne: She’s little part of you.
Teresa: Yes, she’s watch me, because she see me put things down and do different things. So that’s my most laughable moment.
Dionne She’s just seeing you. reflecting you back at [laughter].
Teresa: Which is really good because that not caring what people think has been a little bit better for her with dealing with some of her challenges. But she’s learned that from me.
Dionne: Oh, that’s good. That’s important. That’s important. So is there one particular organization, group that you want to do a shout out, you want to talk about right now?
Teresa: So, since I’m at the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health Conference, I’m going to talk about my organization. It’s Younger Years and Beyond. We are a local chapter of the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health. You will find us on Facebook right now. And just type in The Younger Years and Beyond or Younger Years and Beyond. And we are a local chapter that focuses on mental health and behavioral health challenges for children starting at pre-school through beyond. I started this chapter when Jade was four or five years old when I realized something was going on. And I wanted it to grow with her. And that’s why it’s called The Younger Years and Beyond. We offer support, free and sliding fee scale, because we’re a family-ran organization. We have a fiscal agent, so we do have a non-profit status that we’re under right now. And we provide services for IEPs, 504 Plans. But most of our training to parents as well. So I’m a former trainer for several organizations in Georgia as well as a university for parents with children with special needs as well as some of my Board Members, meaning my Board Members also are very, very strong mental health professionals and staff. So we just do very– what we can. But we mostly have a lot of events. We are a family-ran organization meaning we are family funded and take grants here and there. We’re trying to decide one, going after more. But pretty much we have three events each year. One is a Mental Health Awareness event for children. Then we have a business one like Connecting Organizations. And then this year, we’re going to have a Virtual Mental Health Awareness event for children and families. So we’re going to have a family track, and we’re going to have a children’s track. And I’ve actually been at this conference, and I have booked like two or three ladies–
Dionne: Oh, good.
Teresa: — to already speak. So we definitely are going to talk your agency about all that you do, because we know we are about the motherhood thing here. So that’s we do. You’ll find us on Facebook, The Younger Years and Beyond. And if you can’t find us there, you can always look to Zaria’s Song, and that’s Z-A-R-I-A-S-S-O-N-G like Zaria’s Song because Zaria’s Song and The Younger Years and Beyond are kind of connected because development disabilities and mental health, because the money is separated. People always separate it, but you need you have to do diagnosis.
Dionne: We call it the pathway.
Dionne: There’s many pathways, and a lot of them go through mental health or lead to. We will be sure to provide links to both of those. Or in our sites we have a resource link, and we also– once we put up your podcast, we will provide links. So anybody who listens to this can link. One more? Go ahead. One more.
Teresa: The one other thing that I wanted to say is we also offer training for Mental Health First Aid. We are mental health– I’m a certified Mental Health National First Aid Instructor. And we are adding on. We do it for adults right now. But we are adding on the Children Mental Health First Aid. And we know where our community and our society and our world is right now. So very important that we get that information out there to communities, families, organizations, schools, etc.
Dionne: That is very true. Mental Health First Aid. We can use that training everywhere: teachers, coaches, other parents. Well, thank you very much. I mean this has been a pleasure. This has been– and I hope to continue to talk to you, and work with you in the future. So–
Teresa: I’m so excited.
Dionne: — thanks for joining us.
Teresa: Thank you for the opportunity. I’m so excited. I love your dream. You all can see what she’s dreamed out all for mental health awareness. Thank you so much.
Dionne: Thank you. Thank you.
Narrator: You have been listening to Ask the Advocate. Copyrighted in 2018 by Mothers on the Frontline. Today’s podcast host was Dionne Bensonsmith. The music is Old English, written, performed, and recorded by Flame Emoji. For more podcasts in this and other series relating to children’s mental health, go to mothersonthefrontline.com or subscribe on iTunes, Android, Google Play, or Stitcher.