It was a special night for special moms.
What started as two women who bonded as mothers in search of resources for their sons with cerebral palsy, quickly grew into a massively popular Facebook group.
That was over four years ago.
“The sad thing is we all have the same problems,” said Special Moms Network co-founder Dana DeRuvo Hanner. “It’s a lack of government funding, lack of resources, lack of recreational respite. We have similar problems but, hopefully, together we can come up with creative solutions.”
Their efforts have gone noticed — and beyond other special needs parents and organizations.
Friday night, the Bay Shore Rotary Club honored Special Moms Network founders Susan Kleiman, of Armonk, and DeRuvo Hanner, a registered nurse lives in Bay Shore, during the group’s fall kickoff dinner at the Seatuck Environmental Association’s grounds in Islip.
“These women, these parents, are absolutely tireless in their advocacy for their children, for their friends’ children, for their cause, and we wanted to give a little back,” said Robert Herrick, president of the Bay Shore Rotary Club.
The Rotarians not only recognized the Special Moms Network and highlighted the work they do, the club will be making a monetary contribution as well, Herrick said.
leaps and bounds
It’s been a big year for the network, which unveiled its website in the spring.
Among other things, the site contains listings for special needs-friendly businesses, anecdotal and uplifting stories from families, webinars, even a marketplace for items such as adaptive apparel.
This summer, the Special Moms Network made headlines across Long Island and beyond for developing an information tool that helps first responders when arriving to the home of a special needs child or adult.
More under the radar, Kleiman and DeRuvo Hanner say they’re working every day to connect parents with resources, and with one another, as they all try to navigate new realities, whether it’s the shock of a newborn or the back pain that comes with carrying a growing young man or woman.
“When my son was born in 1993 I had to find out everything for myself,” said Kleiman, whose son, Ross, is now 23. “The internet was at its infancy.”
Even in 2012, actual social networks for services big and small had failed to evolve into anything too sophisticated.
Hence the need for the two women to start the Facebook group.
Kleiman and DeRuvo Hanner met when their sons were living together at renowned Center for Discovery residential program in Harris, N.Y.
Kleiman’s son is still there. DeRuvo Hanner’s son, Nicholas, died last year at the age of 22. (She also authored a book that serves as a tribute Nicholas and a caregiver that aided him and the family.)
“We just got to talking and there really was nothing out there at the time for mothers to get support, and be educated and empowered when it comes to having a child with special needs,” DeRuvo Hanner said. “We took the model into our own hands and created the Facebook group.”
Earlier this year, they took the leap of turning the Facebook group into a business.
what they’re building
“We were having a lot of growth and a lot of enthusiasm in our group and what was starting to happen was, many moms were really trying to promote their own businesses,” DeRuvo Hanner said.
“We all wear two hats, a special needs parent, but also [income producers],” she continued. “We saw moms were trying, not only out of their own self interest, but to help other moms promote the professional side of their world. We said, you know what, we should really be expanding on what we have here.”
While the stories, information and resources shared in the Facebook group and on the website that launched this year is for all parents, it is geared toward moms. That’s because it typically ends up being the mother who becomes the primary caregiver of a special needs child.
“If you go to any support groups for special families, what you’ll find is a lot of times the dad books,” Kleiman said. “They don’t want to deal with the demands of a special needs child. Of course, not all the time; my husband has been wonderful. There are a lot of fathers who stay.”
But studies have found divorce rates to be higher among couple’s with special needs children.
“It puts stress on the marriage, because a lot of emotional time is dedicated to taking care of the child,” Kleiman said. “You start out, you don’t know what hit you over the head, and you have to become a team. And if you don’t become a team, that’s where the problems start.”
“It truly takes a village to raise a special needs child,” she added, noting the help she got from her husband and family.
Not everyone has a village, however, and some single mothers can get thrust into poverty as they try (and perhaps fail) to manage their personal and professional lives — simply for accepting the responsibility of caring for a human being who needs help to survive.
Through the Special Moms Network, Kleiman and DeRuvo Hanner are looking to build that village.
“We’re really proud of it,” said DeRuvo Hanner. “Of course, it’s a work in progress and it’s been a labor of love, but a bittersweet one.
“This was never a world any of us ever thought we would be in.”
photos by Jennifer Mercurio/Lasting Impressions Photography