Mother Seeks Degree to Become an Advocate for Children with Special Needs

Melissa Ripper of Apex will graduate from University of Mount Olive in May with her bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education.  Her journey has not been without struggle, but with her eye on the prize she has pressed hard to achieve her goal, not only for herself and her family, but so she can also make a difference in the lives of children with special needs.

Ripper and her husband, Ralph, have two daughters, Abbey – nine and Zoe – nine months.  When Abbey was three, she was diagnosed with autism.  It changed their world forever.  In 2006 Melissa had the opportunity to be 1 of 30 people chosen by the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities to be a parent advocate in the NC Partners in Policymaking. It was then that Ripper decided she needed to go back to school, not only be an advocate for her own daughter but to also be a representative for other children with special needs.
Below is Melissa’s story, in her own words.  Caution:  you will be inspired.
Melissa Ripper’s Story:
I didn’t know anything about special needs until I became a parent almost 10 years ago of a child with autism. It has been quite a journey to say the least.  There is a poem called “The Road to Holland”.  I use it often to explain what it is to parent a child with autism.  When you are about to become a parent it’s like planning a trip to Italy. You research and plan and get prepared for your trip.  Now imagine the day your child is born and you find out they have special needs……’s like thinking you are going to Italy but you land in Holland.  It is a different path than you planned to be on. You have to learn a whole new language and a way of living.  I received my associate’s degree in the occupational studies of interior design in 1993 from the Colorado Institute of Art in Denver.  When I became a parent I decided I was burned out of the sales pitch and decided I wasn’t cut out interior designer. I wanted to be a stay at home mom.  When Abbey was about six months old we realized that something was wrong. By her first birthday she was falling behind her peers.  Special needs parents go through the stages of grieving when they learn of their children’s diagnosis. I was angry and mad that this had happened to me and my family.
When I became a member of the 2006 graduating class of NC Partners in Policymaking I finally felt empowered. I had almost a year of learning the special needs laws. I learned how to speak with legislators and discuss that those with special needs are people too and need services.  Through the NC Partners in Policymaking we were each given the skills to make a difference. Some have gone on to make simple changes such as getting special needs Sunday school started at their local church.  I have bigger plans – I want to be able to make it my mission to not only help Abbey but to also help others like her.  My ECE degree from University of Mount Olive will help open the doorway for me to help others through intervention.
When I decided to go back to school I knew it was not going to be easy. My life was already not my own because of Abbey’s many appointments with speech therapy, occupational therapy, and sometimes physical therapy.  We were also participating in many studies on autism through UNC as well as working with different specialists. We even turned a room in our home into an occupational therapy room to continue supporting her sensory needs.  My husband is a fire fighter and works 24 hour shifts and runs a handyman business on the side. There was a lot of schedule juggling.  Without any family in the area we live in, we had to get the support of friends and neighbors to sometimes sit with Abbey so I could attend school.  I studied at Abbey’s therapy appointments and took my laptop everywhere we went. I stayed up late and was driven by Abbey’s smile every time I wanted to quit. In May of this year I will graduate with my ECE degree. My art degree would not transfer when I started this journey and I had to completely start over at MOC. I did all of this also while teaching preschool five days a week. Friends thought I was nuts, or they were amazed at how determined I was to do this. Some didn’t understand, others couldn’t imagine.
I want my daughters to walk away with knowing their mother is a strong and determined woman. For Abbey I want her to know that I will always be in her corner and that because of her I finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up.  For Zoe I want her to learn from me and her sister and to one day be supportive of her and stand strong beside Abbey. I want them to know that they have the power to do anything they put their minds to.
Autism is on the rise and affects 1 in 100.  It is a neurological disorder and at this time there is no cure.  It is considered a spectrum disorder because the effects are mild to moderate.  For Abbey she has partial language, she has apraxia that affects her speech. She also suffers from sensory processing and either needs more sensory input or can get over stimulated from input.  The cost of having a special needs child in a lifetime is three million dollars.  The divorce rate for parents of children with special needs is 80 percent.
My husband and I are determined to keep our family together and give them a good life. We always wanted Abbey to have a sibling for us to enjoy and so she had someone in her corner when we passed.  We were scared for many years of the chance of having another with autism.  There is a ten percent chance that if you have one child with autism that you will have another with it.  When Abbey was about seven we felt we were ready.  Sadly, it was not as easy for us to get pregnant the second time around.  In the fall of 2009 God answered our prayers and we found out we were expecting! I continued my studies right up until I delivered Zoe in July of 2010. I took off three classes with my cohort while getting accustomed to motherhood again. I postponed my December 2010 graduation and finished my last class at RTP in March of this year.  University of Mount Olive has given me the strength to realize even at 40 that I can be whatever I want and I can make a difference not only in the world but also for myself and for someone with special needs.
Melissa B. Ripper