Debbie Rock remembers the frustration she felt while first trying to navigate the special education system on behalf of her son, Robert.
Now, she’s devoted to making sure other parents avoid similar feelings of helplessness.
As a parent mentor for the Michigan Alliance for Families (MAF), she helps families whose children receive special education services learn the ins and outs of the system and directs them to state and local resources.
“Ultimately, we hope that parents will become advocates for their children,” said Rock, who at any time is typically assisting as many as 40 families in Kent, Ionia, Barry, Montcalm and Ottawa counties.
MAF—an Individuals with Disabilities Educa¬tion Act (IDEA) Grant Funded Initiative of the Michigan Department of Education, Office of Special Education, and the Parent-Training and Information Center—is charged with providing the support needed by families who have children, up to age 26, who receive or are eligible to receive special education services.
That assistance may take the form of simply offering empathy and peace of mind, passing on tips from other parents who have had children receiving special education services and—perhaps most important— providing or directing them to information on how to champion their child’s education.
Central to the process is ensuring that parents have foundational knowledge about their child’s individualized education program, or IEP, a document that is developed for each public school student who receives special education services. “I describe my job as helping to put the ‘I’ in ‘Individual,’” Rock said.
There are limits to parent mentors’ involvement. For example, they don’t accompany parents to meetings with school staff or otherwise intercede with school districts on their behalf.
“We’re not really a crisis-focused agency,” Rock said. “We’re more involved with empowering parents by feeding them information. Parent mentors are basically resource people.”
They also understand what parents who come to Michigan Alliance for Families for help are experiencing. Rock and the other 24 MAF parent mentors statewide have each had children who receive special education services. “Parent mentors know how things are supposed to happen,” Rock said.
Parent mentors are fueled by a singular belief: “Our kids with disabilities can learn,” Rock said. “They can grow up to be successful on their own if they are given the opportunities they deserve.”
A good first step toward guaranteeing those opportunities, Rock said, is ensuring that parents are educated about the special education system. But information—including knowing that Michigan Alliance for Families stands ready to help—isn’t always easy to come by.
“Honestly, the struggle is parents must really beat the ground before they get to us,” said Rock, adding that ideally school districts would automatically refer or provide information about MAF to parents of students receiving special education services. “Think of all the parents out there who are struggling and have no clue that there’s an awesome program that can help them find their way for free.”
Rock said she wishes she would have known more after Robert—the third of her four children and her only son—was born.
She recalls wondering about his social behavior as an infant and toddler, although he showed uncommon intellectual ability. “I thought he was an exceptional child—quirky, but exceptional,” Rock said.
For example, when Robert was 6 months old, his oldest sister was learning basic sign language as part of a classroom assignment. Watching her practice at home, Robert immediately picked up on it. “By 2, he was saying sentences,” Rock said.
Yet still he didn’t interact with people—particularly other children—as she thought he should. After some initial testing led to a diagnosis of mild dyslexia, Robert was enrolled in developmental kindergarten, where he remained socially detached from his classmates. “But talking to an adult, he could carry on a conversation like a little professor,” Rock said. “The teacher didn’t know what to do with him. By the end of the year, I was pretty frustrated.”
While Robert was enrolled at a Montessori school, he underwent additional testing and was diagnosed with nonverbal learning disability and attention deficit disorder. After his social struggles continued, a special education teacher told Rock about Michigan Alliance for Families.
“I just became empowered, because all of a sudden I had all these resources and I knew there was a way to write a letter and request these services,” said Rock, adding that at the same time she felt angry because she didn’t know more sooner.
After Robert began attending Pewamo-Westphalia Community Schools, where special education supports were in place, a neuropsychologist determined he had Asperger’s syndrome, a milder form of autism.
“It was like a flip of a switch when we found out he had Asperger’s,” said Rock, who was now better able to ensure that Robert’s IEP was tailored to his needs.
Robert, 15, is now a well-integrated 10th-grader at Pewamo-Westphalia High School. “He's still not without his challenges—but he’s still very smart,” Rock said.
Her journey with Robert eventually led to her joining MAF as a parent mentor in 2014.
“Part of my motivation was that I didn’t want other people to feel this way,” she said.
“It’s so rewarding. I would not trade this job for anything.”