The Power of a Mom’s Love
By JOE NOCERA
Published: December 24, 2012
It’s Christmas. The fiscal cliff is still approaching, guns remain a huge problem and the political paralysis in Washington isn’t abating. But, in the spirit of the season, let’s put aside our national troubles for this one day and talk about something a little more inspiring. Let’s talk about what a mother’s love can accomplish.
The mother I have in mind is Laurie Cameron, a 58-year-old dynamo who lives in Putnam County, N.Y., an hour and a half from Manhattan. When I first met her, about 14 years ago, she was the director of marketing at Fortune — and one of the warmest, most vibrant people I have ever known. We became friends in the way people often become friends in the office. She knew a little about my life and I knew a little about hers, but when the workday ended we went our separate ways.
I knew, for instance, that her son Luke had issues. But I never knew the details, because she didn’t talk about them. Luke, who is now 21, and his twin brother, Jason, had been born three months prematurely, each weighing less than 2 pounds. Luke is the one who survived.
When Luke was 2 years old, Laurie realized he had severe developmental problems. Although he understands everything, he doesn’t speak; to this day, the only word he has ever uttered is “mom.” Nor can he tolerate loud noises or chaos — screaming babies, for instance, can cause him to become extremely agitated. When I met Luke recently, I assumed he was autistic. His diagnosis, however, is much vaguer: “developmentally delayed,” a catchphrase for problems doctors can’t pinpoint.
Laurie freely admits that she spent a long time “floundering” trying to find the right kind of help for Luke. “There aren’t any guides to help you if you have a special-needs child,” Laurie says. She put him in schools that were supposed to integrate him with other children, but he was kept apart. Teachers would call while she was in meetings to tell her that Luke was having a meltdown. Other students ostracized him. Luke became depressed.
Laurie, meanwhile, had become deeply frustrated. “He’s a smart kid,” she says. “He is computer literate. He loves to cook. He is fascinated by dolphins. He has lots of interests.” But when Luke was introduced to people, they often treated him as if he were mentally slow. The larger world found it easy to marginalize him.
When Luke was 11, Laurie found the Westchester Exceptional Children’s School in North Salem, N.Y., where he was treated the same way we all want to be treated: with respect and dignity. He found friends there — and support. “He can feel free there,” Laurie says. “There are very few places where he can feel free.”
Laurie became involved enough to join the board, eventually becoming its president, a position she now holds. When she and I visited Luke there recently, she not only knew all the teachers, but all the students as well. A few of them gave her a hug.
By now, Laurie is all-in as a mother dedicated to helping not only Luke but other special-needs children — and their parents. She left Fortune five years ago, and, since then, she has bubbled over with ideas. One of them is a series of children’s books about “the Lambdoodle cafe” featuring a boy like Luke. She made the rounds of publishers, who told her that the niche was too narrow. In the next breath, she said, they would tell her about special-needs children in their families or neighborhood.
“There are 6.5 million Americans who have been diagnosed with special needs,” she says. “And that doesn’t count all the other people who are affected: parents, siblings, extended family. We are huge, and yet we are invisible.” In the long term, that is what she wants to change.
In the short term, she has a more pressing problem. Luke will be graduating in June. He will be looking, as we all do, for a life with friends, with interesting things to do, and with meaning. But most programs for people with special needs either require skills he’ll never have or are mind-numbingly boring.
Laurie is planning to change that. She has started a program called “Cultivating Dreams,” which will offer people with special needs a community of their own — a little like assisted living for the elderly — where they can live freely, but also work at a bakery, or in a garden, or at any number of other jobs that suit this particular group of people. She has joined with a larger organization, Careers for People With Disabilities, which will soon offer Cultivating Dreams as one of its programs.
“All I’m trying to do is make sure my kid has a place in the world,” she says. Mountains are moved from such dreams.