It Takes a TEAM

I started with a new company a few months ago, and realized immediately I was not going to be successful on my own – to make the most of my skill sets I was going to have to rely on everyone else. Now for some of you reading this it may seem like common sense, but for the last year or so I had pretty much been left to my own devices – if I needed help I could ask, but it was easy for me to believe I was a one-man show. 

I think the same can be said as parents of children with disabilities (I’ve never been a parent of a child without, so I can’t say). We get really used to just putting our heads down and slogging forward, figuring stuff out as necessary; and often, like my wife and I did, splitting the responsibilities. This got us by, I don’t feel like my son suffered or wanted for anything; but in hindsight we certainly could’ve done more (isn’t that always the case?).

What I’ve learned over the last (5) years is this – yes, I can find a way to do just about anything on my own; but why should I?! Instead I look for an expert in whatever it is I need to do. For example, I had a friend help me teach him to cook and he’s now making himself dinner every night.

I also hired an advocate when he was transitioning from middle to High School. Not because I felt the school was trying to screw me over, quite the opposite – I’m a very passionate guy and I didn’t want to send the wrong message to the other members of the IEP meetings. I also had a hard time coming to terms with their recommendation that he should be in the certificate program (in school until 21) rather than earn a diploma. The advocate helped me work through this (although if I’m completely transparent I’m still finding it hard to swallow – although I believe it is the right thing to do).

These are just a few examples, and you don’t necessarily have to pay a professional. After all, there are a lot of people in this world and it’s likely someone else has lived through something that can be correlated to challenges you’re facing now. I’m not suggesting you put your business out there; but I do believe you should build yourself a core network of individuals whom you can trust, who can understand where you are and where you want to be. And be okay with this group changing over time, I think life has stages and we each pass through them at our own time and pace.

I learned this when I was stationed on my first boat (submarine, hence the pic); but somehow over the years I had forgotten. I’m betting many of you may be saying something similar – maybe from your time playing sports in school, or as a Boy/Girl Scout. It often seems easier to do it ourselves rather than asking for help; but the risk we run in doing so is not knowing what we could be missing. So next time you come across something that’s not in your “lane” take a moment and ask yourself – who do I know that I can reach out to. If no-one readily comes to mind, ask yourself, who do I know who seems to know “everyone”. I have yet to meet someone that doesn’t know at least one person like this, so I’m betting you do. If not, reach out to me – I’ll be happy to help you connect with the right resource.

You’re NOT alone!

Because They Can’t! Wait, Can They?

As my son’s 18th birthday approaches I find myself reflecting on the significant independence he’s gained over the last (5) years. I remember when we were first told he had Autism, the doctors and teachers made it a point to ensure we understood he would likely plateau – and not to get too upset. Full disclosure – this happened over 12 years ago and I’m coloring what was said with what I heard/remember, so I own the fact this may not have been what they were trying to convey. But it’s what my wife and I took away, and it set a tone.

In the following years my wife and I allowed this to color our perception and interactions with our son – at first by doing things for him at the first sign of trouble, and eventually just outright doing it for him – not even letting him try. When my wife died my son was 12, and he literally did next to nothing for himself – to include toileting and bathing. This year he’ll turn 18, and he’s quite the independent young man. He makes his own dinner every night, puts laundry away, cleans up after himself and gives me a grocery list weekly – in addition to toileting and bathing himself.

I allowed a similar influence to shade my perceptions when I was in the Navy. I had been assigned to manage a shop of around twenty people in Air Department, and I was told nothing but negative things about them. Rather than ignoring these opinions, or at least taking them with a grain of salt; I went in fully convinced I’d been given the worst bunch of people in the Navy. Needless to say I turned into the worst boss I could imagine, I don’t think tyrant is too strong a word. To make it worse, I didn’t learn until it was too late – after I had transferred to another duty station.

My point in these trips down memory lane is this. I think we’re all guilty of acting on incorrect assumptions based on information provided. As a parent of a child with disabilities I struggle constantly to remind myself the diagnosis isn’t a rule book – it’s an identification for why he may have certain behaviors and challenges. It doesn’t mean every possible manifestation will apply, and even those occurring are definitively not able to be worked around.

Technology and medicine are advancing at an incredible rate. People who may have once been trapped inside their bodies are finding new ways to communicate – through organizations like VocaliD and devices like the Surface and iPad. They have wheelchairs allowing people to stand upright; and are developing exoskeletons to provide even more mobility.

Yet some of us still latch on to the worst possible scenario, telling ourselves nothing will help our child – they’re different. I challenge you to change this narrative, instead of focusing on what your child can’t do – celebrate what they can. And never stop trying, even if they’ve failed in the past. If you had a child without a disability I don’t think you’d give up, I think most of us would continue looking for tools to help them be successful. So why have a double standard?

Yes, there are things my son cannot do right now – and I will concede he may never be able to. The biggest example that comes to mind is driving; but self-driving cars are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Will they be affordable and commonplace in his lifetime – I have no idea, but I certainly hope so. I challenge all of you to revisit everything you don’t think your child/sibling can do; and think outside the box. What can you do to get around these limitations? I bet there is at least one thing you can change! Good luck.

Do You Have/Need an Exit Strategy?

Recently I’ve been receiving not so subtle reminders of how finite our lives are, and how much of a difference having a plan can make. I think we can all agree it’s impossible to plan for every eventuality, but I also think we can all agree there is at least one exit we are all going to make – to the best of my knowledge nobody has found the secret to immortality in our present state (this is not meant as a religious or philosophical post).

I remember how torn I was, weighing whether to reenlist or not. I retired with over 20 years, but if I’m completely honest with myself it’s not because I loved the Navy. The biggest reason I stayed was fear – I wasn’t sure what I would do about health insurance for my son – having received the Autism diagnosis in the early 2000’s and there not being much information available (that we were aware of). This had negative consequences – I was not someone anyone would want to be around; I felt trapped and took it out on everyone around me.

I think many, if not all, of us can relate to feeling trapped at some point in our lives – be it in a marriage, or a job or some other contract. And because this can be so overwhelming it’s easy for us to lose sight of options, convincing ourselves there is absolutely nothing we can do to make our situation better – regardless of what those around us may be proposing.

If you have kids, do you let them go through high school without talking to you about what their plan is after graduation? If the answer is “no”, then why are you treating yourself any different? This leads me to having an exit strategy – begin with the end in mind. Sounds trite, perhaps; but it will make a significant difference.

For example, no-one marries with the intent to divorce; but even if you don’t divorce the odds are one of you will outlive the other – even if it’s 50+ years down the road. Have a discussion of what you want, how you want to be remembered and where you want to be laid to rest – and put it in writing. Yes, this is an Estate plan; but it’s not meant to be set in stone – review it at major milestones, or at least every 5 years if you have nothing going on.

Another example I come across is similar to what I experienced in the Navy – people are afraid to leave their jobs (not just the military) because of uncertainty; will they make enough money, what else would they do, etc. In this case, my advice is to build yourself a “freedom fund”. Save money into an account with the strict purpose of giving you a buffer. How much is up to you, but I would suggest at least 6 months of income. I would also recommend you make a list of what is non-negotiable. What do you absolutely have to have – could be a minimum salary, specific benefit(s), etc; and also what you are completely unwilling to have in your life – could be too much autonomy, a micro-managing boss, specific working hours or days of the week, etc.

If you take nothing else away from reading this, please take the time to understand what’s most important to you. Don’t be upset or feel like you’re doing something wrong if your internal values don’t match your coworkers or friends – these are your values. When you are considering a change, especially a major one, take a moment to consider possible consequences. I’m doing this with my clients all the time, as I’d wager most Advisers are. Take it for what it’s meant to be, a glimpse of other possibilities; not finding fault with your ideas.

 

Charity Connect

Charity Connect was founded by Cristin Caine to “create lifelong volunteers by personally matching clients with their right fit volunteer opportunity and by providing community service education.” They take the time to really connect with the individuals, youth and adults, who want to volunteer; taking the time to understand what their true passion is and making connections with the appropriate non-profits – setting the stage for a long and enriching relationship for all involved parties!

Who They Are 

Charity Connect currently is just serving Montgomery County, Maryland; building relationships with schools, neighborhoods and non-profits. They are an organization whose core belief is you don’t have to be wealthy to be philanthropic. Charity Connect’s premise is most people want to contribute, but they don’t know how; or they’ve tried and had negative experiences. Their focus is on ensuring everybody has the best opportunity to have a positive and memorable experience possible.

What They Do 

 

Charity Connect takes the time to understand what each prospective volunteer is looking for – not just the type of organization they want to volunteer with; but also what the volunteer’s strengths and passions are – because when these are tapped into it’s more likely the volunteer will enjoy his/her time with the non-profit, and the non-profit will see the best of the volunteer.

Charity Connect works with students, from preschool to college, generating excitement around volunteering and making it more than just being about ensuring you have enough student service learning (SSL) hours. However, it’s not just for youth – adults of all ages are more than welcome to connect and volunteer.

Cristin’s team works with the client (potential volunteer) to “develop and facilitate a comprehensive project including volunteer service, fundraising, and advocacy for special occasion and other in-depth service projects.” This really appeals to me, because too often I’ve seen people volunteer with a non-profit that didn’t really have a clear plan of what to do with them. This led to a less than enjoyable experience for the volunteer, and the non-profit loses a potential resource. Not only that, there’s a chance the individual shares his negative experience, because it’s an unfortunate truth people are more willing to share these than they are to share a positive experience.

What Else Should I Know

Charity Connect can be of service to anybody and everybody, in my humble opinion. If you own a company and you’re looking to build corporate goodwill, Cristin can work with you to match a non-profit with your company’s mission and corporate culture. I think I’ve already shown the benefit available to youth and adults. Non-profits struggle with finding the right types of volunteers, working with Charity Connect could provide a ready, on demand resource. Finally, I think parents and students are burned out on the same old same old when it comes to options to fulfill their SSL requirements. Cristin can offer a fresh perspective, and potentially opportunities you never would’ve considered.

Disclaimer

I am not an employee of Charity Connect and any errors noted are my own. If I have misrepresented, or misstated anything please provide constructive feedback so I may make the appropriate change(s). All opinions and views are my own.

What Should I Say?

More often than not the first thing somebody says to me when they find out my son has Autism is “Where is he on the Spectrum” or “Is he high-functioning?” Speaking only for myself, as a parent neither of these questions has an easy, or comfortable answer – and even if they did I don’t believe the individual(s) asking would understand. It’s my belief these questions are asked because people don’t know what else to say, and I’m hoping this will help change that.

Yes, Autism is a disorder that has a “spectrum”; but the DSM-V doesn’t provide a band we can point to and say our son/daughter is here. Often times the diagnosis of Autism comes with accompanying intellectual disabilities, as is the case with my son; or other disorders. The idea of a spectrum is, in my opinion, really only helpful to physicians and insurance companies trying to prescribe and pay for the proper treatments.

Generally, high functioning Autism applies to people with an IQ higher than 75. Using this definition, my answer has to be “no, my son is not high functioning”. However, if you take a more general approach, looking at how self-reliant people with Autism are; then my answer would be “yes”. My son cooks his own dinner, self-regulates all aspects of his personal hygiene, provides me with a weekly grocery list, puts laundry away and makes his bed every morning – to list just a few of his independent living skills. I would argue that at 17 he is much more “high-functioning” than many of his peers without a disability.

So what should people say/do? In short – nothing different than you would if I told you I had a son, period. Speaking for myself, if I disclose my son has Autism I’m not looking for sympathy – rather I’m hoping to explain behaviors that may seem “off” despite my son having no visible disabilities. I will also disclose his diagnosis to help explain why he will not graduate at 18, instead staying in school until 21.

Frankly, I feel the sooner we as a society stop taking special notice (not the same thing as providing accommodations) of individuals with disabilities the better. I acknowledge this is will be a challenge, because despite this being the 21st century race and sex are still an issue for some people. But I’m optimistic – I really believe most of us are trying to do the right thing, and with these particular questions are asking because people are uncomfortable and are trying to fit the information into their available models. With time, patience and education I know our models will expand; in the interim I ask everyone to stop themselves before asking about the disability, and instead focus on the amazing individual him/herself.

I am NOT finding fault or placing blame with anyone. This is not meant to be offensive, and if it makes you uncomfortable or angry; I would ask you to explore the “why”.

 

College – It’s not for everyone (and that’s OK!)

If there is one theme I feel very confident in saying I run into in almost every planning encounter I do for families with young children, it’s college planning. Yet the research I’ve done, using Pew Research Center, indicates only “56% of students earn degrees within 6 years”. Combine this with an average student loan debt amount of almost $29,000 per borrower ($28,950, Institute for College Access & Success, 2015) and you have a recipe for financial disaster. Because if these students are not finishing their degrees, are they finding jobs paying enough  to cover the loans, or did they fall victim to a feeling of failure and take unskilled labor positions.

Not too long ago a college degree was not the only answer, individuals were proud to be craftsman and take up trades like plumbing, HVAC, electrical, etc. I joined the Navy as a Junior in High School using the Delayed Entry Program because at the time not only did I not have any interest in pursuing further education, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life. And in 20+ years since then I’ve had several transitions – from completing my Journeyman’s as an Electrician, to a Six Sigma Green Belt and finally as a Financial Planner. Admittedly I’ve since gone back to school, and I’ll have my second Masters (MBA) later this year – but I’m doing so without taking on any debt.

I applaud parents for thinking ahead and saving for college for their children, but not at the expense of their own retirements (as so often seems to happen). But I want to raise awareness of other avenues available, especially for those (like me) who are not necessarily inclined to pursue yet more book learning after High School, and/or just don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. Less than 1% of the U.S. population serves in the military (309 million in 2010, NPR); and given the fact we’ve been involved in armed conflicts for as long as I can remember it’s not going to be the best option.

Mike Rowe, the host of Dirty Jobs and much, much more, started a Foundation to help those interested in pursuing a blue collar career. His Foundation, mikeroweWORKS, offers scholarships to help individuals learn a trade – from welding to agriculture. And let’s be real, no matter how advanced our technology gets we’re going to need people who can keep our lights on and water running. This isn’t about unskilled labor getting minimum wage, it’s about learning valuable skills that, although may evolve, will never (in my opinion) not be needed.

I’ll admit my position may be a bit unorthodox and unpopular, but I stand by my assertion those who take the time to learn trades can become very successful. Accumulating wealth isn’t about which school you attended (and are now indebted to), it’s about how much you can save and how well you can live within your means. Next time you sit down at your desk and start your computer, think about those who wired the building your in, or are producing the electricity you’re using – and what you would be doing without them. Success is a destination with multiple paths, don’t feel trapped into pursuing just one because it’s what is getting the most air time.

And finally, this is NOT a dig against college – if you know what you want to do, and you need a degree to do it, then go for it. This is an attempt to raise awareness of other options, and negate some of the negativity associated with blue collar jobs that I perceive. I refuse to believe we all know what we want to do as soon as we leave High School, and although college can help you “find yourself”, do you want to pay over $16,000 per year to do so (National Center for Education Statistics)?

If your child has a 529 plan – don’t despair, according to IRS rules these funds CAN be used for vocational training. “An eligible educational institution is generally any college, university, vocational school, or other postsecondary educational institution eligible to participate in a student aid program administered by the U.S. Department of Education” IRS.Gov. Talk to your Advisor/Planner to get more information about options available for you, and don’t hesitate to think outside the box.