In 1978 I had an important decision to make–one that would affect my entire career as well as the lives of my husband and our two sons.
I’d just been accepted to law school, and as a former teacher, I also had just helped found a nonprofit to assist parents of children with disabilities. The still-fledgling startup was called PACER Center, and we created it to help parents know their rights and expand opportunities for their youngsters. We had just received a three-year federal grant providing $71,000 per year to serve Minnesota families, and I had the chance to become the organization’s co-director.
I wasn’t sure of the new organization’s future, but I knew that attending law school would limit my flexibility to attend my young sons’ activities. I also knew the field of law was already represented by my husband, a law professor who inspired students and pursued justice for underrepresented people.
Together with four other women, I decided to lean in to PACER. Prior to getting that first federal grant, I had never seen a budget nor written a request for funding. I learned very quickly. During our first year, we wrote a second proposal to the U.S. Department of Education that would allow us to start a disability awareness puppet program for elementary school children and to hire two people in the Hispanic community to work with Spanish-speaking parents.
I love the decision I made in 1978. For the last 15 years, I have been the executive director of PACER, which has grown from one project and a staff of five to 35 projects and a staff of 70; from a budget of $71,000 to $5.5 million; and from its initial 700-square-foot office to our own 38,000-square-foot building. PACER is part of the National Parent Center network, a consortium of 104 resource centers around the country. In 1984, I helped write federal legislation to fund these centers, and each year I encourage increased appropriations from Congress.
I was also instrumental in starting PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center in 2006, as well as National Bullying Prevention Month, which takes place each October. Children with disabilities are bullied two to three times more often than typical kids, but our materials and websites at PACER.org/bullying are for all children. Almost two million people from 197 countries visited our bullying prevention websites last year.
I now know that I am a risk taker and an entrepreneur, but the most important outcome of making the right decision in 1978 is this: By leading PACER, I know I have made a positive difference in the lives of thousands of children with disabilities and their families. I know this because parents tell us that every day. I love what I am doing as an advocate, fundraiser, leader and pragmatic optimist. A plaque in my room says: “Nothing is Impossible!”
By leaning in and working with fantastic staff and board members, I have learned that it’s possible to make the world a better place.