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Lindsey Garner with son

Lindsey Garner on Building a Community of Special Needs Moms

this Fort Worth CEO talks about the isolation she felt as a special needs parent—and how she changed that

The last few months have been tough for all moms. We’ve been balancing motherhood, relationships, work (from home, for many of us) and the stress of pandemic-induced isolation. North Texas mom Lindsey Garner has also had the challenge of keeping her nonprofit organization meeting the extensive needs of local at-risk children—without the benefit of personal contact—and ensuring her 6-year-old son Ryan, who has autism and is minimally verbal, continues progressing in learning and life skills. It’s a lot, of course, but doing for others comes naturally to her. 

Still, while Garner always knew her calling involved service, becoming a special needs parent was entirely unexpected. She had no experience with autism, and she felt shock, grief and a disconnect from those around her with neurotypical children. So what’s a mom to do? Garner drew on her leadership skills and desire to serve in order to build support and community for herself and other special needs parents. 

Where did your interest in solving social problems originate? My family was always really involved in our church, and I had lots of opportunities to go on mission trips. I grew up being mindful of the poor and ways that you can serve other people. I think that just became the thing that I wanted to do with my life and my career. And honestly, I never really felt called to do anything else professionally. So it really was a natural fit to pursue a career in a nonprofit industry. 

You are president and CEO of Communities In Schools of Greater Tarrant County. How does your organization support children at risk? Communities In Schools is a national organization that is focused on providing supportive services for at-risk kids. That might include addressing basic needs or social, emotional or mental health supports.

We work with children in poverty, those who might be in a situation of abuse or neglect, children who have a parent incarcerated or those who need the support of a caring adult to help identify their specific challenges and to overcome those barriers. Communities In Schools is the bridge between the student, their family and community agencies and services.  

In a nutshell, we contract with school districts to place our licensed social workers on their campuses full time. And each social worker case manages up to 90 students per campus. Our social workers do needs assessments to see what resources are lacking for a child, and their job is to connect the student and family with local social services. We also provide one-on-one mental health counseling for students and their families. The idea is to surround students with what they need to be successful in school. 

That’s a big job. How do you ensure those kids are taken care of while managing your own life and family? It’s definitely asking a lot of our team to give of themselves to so many children and families in need, but then still be able to be a parent or a spouse in their own home. I’m in that same boat as well.

We’re constantly pouring out into others. So we talk a lot at work about self-care. I believe that we have to nurture ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually to be our best. And I can tell when Im neglecting any one of those areasit impacts me. And then thats going to impact my ability to be my best for my family and in my work. 

When did you realize that Ryan had special needs? He seemed to be developing normally or meeting his milestones until he was about maybe 1½ or 2. He was making sounds and being responsive. He crawled and walked and that sort of thing at the normal times.

But about the time you would expect his speech to really be starting to take off, he was doing the opposite. He never moved past baby sounds and making noises. And he flapped, flapping his arms constantly, spinning, jumping, constant movement. So we saw red flag after red flag.  

At what age was Ryan diagnosed with autism? He was diagnosed at 3. For a long time, they called him nonverbal. I really dont like that term for him because I think it is so finitelike a description of what he cant do, and I dont believe that. I do not believe that my child cannot speak. I think he doesnt speak a lot yet, but he does have some words, and hes constantly adding to his list of words.

Some are repetitive. Some are generative, meaning that he is saying them on his own in the right context. But he is minimally verbal, not socially verbal yet. 

Was it hard for you to adapt to being a special needs parent? Absolutely. My husband, I think, once read an analogy about somebody telling you that you were going on a trip, and you pack for a certain destination. And then at the last minute, you are told you’re going someplace completely different, experiencing the shock of that: You’re still going on a trip but are completely ill-equipped.  

I felt very isolated. It was amazing to me that you can feel so isolated when you are so involved. We were very involved at church. I was very involved in the community through work. And I had the sweetest girlfriends. But I went through a time where I couldnt go out with girlfriends because I felt like my path was so different. It affected me psychologically.

I couldnt participate in conversation the way that you would want to. I didn’t want to be around people I could not relate to and who didn’t relate to me. I got really tired of sympathy and what felt like platitudes. I’m like, “You know what? That’s nice, but I just want you to truly understand.” I wanted to be able to have a real conversation about the challenges were seeing in our home.  

How did you create the community you needed? Well, first, I looked for it. I really thought that in a thriving city like Fort Worth, I would easily find a support group for moms who were raising children with autism. So the first thing I did was go on social media, looking for other moms I could meet with. And there were a couple of groups I found, but they werent convenient for my location and schedule.  Also, I didnt want to go to a formal meeting where we sit around in a circle and who knows what.

I wanted girlfriends. I wanted to go out with some girlfriends like me. And I could not find that in Fort Worth proper. Another girl I connected with on social media said, Im looking for a support group too. Why dont you start one? And I was thinking, Yeah, thats just what I needone more thing on my plate.” But I did.  

Tell us about that process. In October 2018, I started #MomStrongFW on Facebook. I scheduled a meeting for La Madeleine on Camp Bowie. And I told my husband, “I’m going to go. I’m going to sit there with my dinner and my glass of wine, and I’m going to just hope and pray some women will walk through the door.” And soon enough—I think at that first meeting, we had 13 women.  

That meeting really turned into a core group of women who now have developed friendships. We get together for dinner one evening a month, except during COVID. We usually have about 15 women attend. And then we have 166 members on the online platform. 

How does #MomStrongFW use Facebook? I started it as a public Facebook page, but then quickly, some moms gave feedback and said, “If we are going to share information about our children, wed rather it be a private group, which totally made sense. So I turned it into a private group. And it’s just people trying to navigate their everyday lives. It’s sharing resources, maybe recommending a therapist they use with their child, and a lot of emotional support. 

Now that you have this community, is it easier to spend time with your girlfriends who are raising neurotypical children? Yes, actually. I don’t feel isolated anymore. Before, when I was with them, I was comparing and saying to myself, “Oh my goodness, look at this huge contrast between where I am and what they’re saying and talking about. I can’t relate and you can’t understand where I am.”

And I was grieving. But I think because I have another group of people that I can process through that with and people who do relate, I’m not bringing that with me anymore and not bogged down by that. Isn’t that amazing? 

 Search #MomStrongFW on Facebook to connect with Garner’s group.  

Fast Facts

Age: 38
Hometown: Granbury 
Lives in: Fort Worth
Job: President and CEO of Communities In Schools of Greater Tarrant County
Alma mater: Texas A&M University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in public service and administration
Significant other: Husband Johny, a professor of organizational communication at TCU
Where they met: Through Aggies for Christ and their church in College Station
Children: Sons Nathan, 9, and Ryan, 6. Ryan has autism and is minimally verbal. 

Photo courtesy of Nick Prendergast.