Experience aids others Special-needs kids, families get benefits
Special for The Arizona Republic
Feb. 16, 2004 12:00 AM
Kristin Park

Six years ago, when her newborn daughter, Leticia, was diagnosed with Down syndrome, Theresa Cervantes learned about a network of support for herself and her family.

Called Raising Special Kids, the group last year matched 600 parents with 500 volunteer mentors like Cervantes for support and education.

"Parents like Theresa are the wonderful fruit of their own initiative," Executive Director Joyce Millard-Hoie said. "I think she exemplifies, without a doubt, the very best qualities of a parent volunteer."

Added Cervantes, 38, of Queen Creek:

"I try to give newly diagnosed families some comfort. I hope they see me as an example that it's not as hard as they might have feared it would be."

Cervantes has taken on a leadership role by joining the organization's Family Faculty program.

The training program offers volunteer parents the opportunity to help educate pediatric and family-practice physicians from eight hospitals.

Knowing what it is like to be on the other end, Cervantes shares her insight to teach medical residents how to give a diagnosis properly and compassionately.

In teaching the organization's family-centered philosophy, Cervantes demonstrates the importance of acknowledging a family's feelings. She focuses on putting the child ahead of the diagnosis.

"I'm just so proud of my own daughter. I don't see (Down syndrome) as a disability. It's just a part of her, like the color of her hair or the color of her eyes," Cervantes said.

Being bilingual, Cervantes also volunteers to help Spanish-speaking parents. She began facilitating a monthly support group when she realized there was a need.

"The most rewarding part of it is seeing the parents moving forward and feeling like I've made a difference," she said.

When asked how many hours she spends volunteering with Raising Special Kids, Cervantes laughed.

"I can't even begin to count up the hours. It's become such a part of my life. I feel that it's my calling."

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