You are using an outdated browser.
For a better experience, please upgrade your browser here.

Donna Fluke

Advocate for Children With Disabilities

Hyattsville, MD

I could not imagine what there was to laugh about, but I soon found myself joining in. I was learning my first valuable lesson: I was not alone – here were other women with problems too and they were somehow able to smile.

I distinctly remember the cold, February day in 1964. I was depressed and feeling desperate. Another day as the mother of two little ones, both children with developmental disabilities engaging in numerous behavioral outbursts. For years I had taken them to their pediatrician for regular care, but couldn’t find programs or places to go for information on how to deal with their developmental issues.

That day, like many others, my husband was busy working and I was alone. I felt trapped. I thought to myself – either I find someone to talk to, someplace to go for help or I give up and spend the rest of my life crying in the corner. I made up my mind: I needed help and so did my children.

Living in Hyattsville, Maryland (part of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area) for only about a year, I had no idea where to turn. I opened the phone book, and under the heading of “mental retardation,” I found a listing for The Association for Retarded Children of Prince George’s County. Little did I know that would be the beginning of a long journey on an incredible pathway that I could never have predicted.

I called the number and a lady with a pleasant voice greeted me. After telling her I needed someone to talk to about programs for my mentally retarded children, she offered the best news I had heard in a long time: She told me that a group of mothers, all with mentally retarded children, met in a discussion group once a month, and she asked if I would be interested in attending. I went to my first meeting the following week.

Walking into that meeting as a total stranger was daunting, to say the least. But the other women welcomed me warmly and, to my surprise, laughed and chatted about their children. I could not imagine what there was to laugh about, but I soon found myself joining in. I felt guilty laughing about their stories, but I was learning my first valuable lesson: I was not alone – here were other women with problems too and they were somehow able to smile, at least on the outside.

I walked away from that meeting with ideas about how to find programs for my children. I also walked away with courage and hope for the future. Many programs, setbacks and horror stories later, my children are now in their early fifties and have been the motivation for my journey.

Hours of volunteer work ultimately led me to gain professional standing in the field of disabilities. I retired from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, where I served as a Project Officer for the Parent Program, providing information and support to families across the U.S. who have children with disabilities. I am satisfied that my life has been purposeful and I have made a small contribution to help others.

Get more from Lean In

Start a Circle

We make it easy to get started, and provide all of the materials you’ll need to run your Circle

Start your Circle

Join a Circle

Women around the world are meeting regularly in small groups to support each other and learn new skills–join one today

Find a Circle

Learn New Skills

Use our library of education resources to build new skills and support your career

Build your skills