“You’ve been assigned this mountain to show others it can be moved.”

Areva Martin reflects on the sounding words of wisdom from her grandmother that gave her strength in her journey To raise awareness and impact public policy for autism in America today.

Areva. A Harvard-trained civil rights attorney,  has been able to use her platform in the media to help raise awareness of autism and to raise millions of dollars for Special Needs Network. As a legal analyst on CNN and HLN and a host of daytime talk shows from Face the Truth to The Doctors, she takes advantage of every opportunity to educate, inform and empower audiences about incredible talents of individuals with special needs and to continue to push for much needed government and private funding and investments in disenfranchised communities.

The Special Needs Network Founder is on a mission. A mission she hopes will become a model for America. One she says has often been denied within communities of color due to the lack of resources, the stigma associated with autism and little to no awareness.

We had the honor to celebrate all of her accomplishments including her most recent recognition at the HollyRod Foundation’s 21st Annual DesignCare Gala. Areva was one of the evening’s honorees along with activist and actress Eva Longoria,  and past recipients Sharon Osbourne, Sugar Ray Leonard and Michael J. Fox, to name a few.

What makes the award most special for you? 

I have been blessed in my career to receive a lot of awards from different organizations and groups. I am always humbled by the recognition by these organizations. My goal in starting my nonprofit, Special Needs Network, and becoming an autism and children’s rights advocate was never about fame or fortune. It was driven and continues to be so by my own personal experience with my son Marty, who was diagnosed with autism as a child, and by my collective experiences growing up poor in a housing project in North St. Louis. Notwithstanding, it was a special honor to be recognized by Holly and Rodney. I have known them for over a decade and have admired how they have used their son/father experiences to raise awareness of autism and Parkinson’s disease. It is always special to be recognized by your peers and friends. As parents, they know firsthand, as I do, the struggles of other parents and the journey with autism. It was also special because with the award, I join a long and illustrious list of game changers that HollyRod have recognized over the years including the legendary Muhammad Ali and Magic Johnson .

Tell me about your journey with Autism.

My journey began with my son Marty’s diagnosis at the age of two. Like so many mothers, I was absolutely devastated with the diagnosis. I was frustrated and confused. There was no centralized source of consistent information and even my pediatrician had more questions than answers. I couldn’t say the word autism without weeping. It took me months to be able to say the word autism and to begin the process of seeking out the medical and educational services.

But gradually the strong lessons my grandmother taught me kicked in. I knew without a doubt that, if grandma were faced with this challenge, she would rise to the occasion and face it head on. “You’ve been assigned this mountain to show others that it can be moved,” she’d say.

Remembering her strength, I summoned my own. Knowing that I had to be at my strongest when I felt the weakest, I did what she would do. I started reading. I took classes, talked to parents and doctors and healthcare workers—anyone who would share information with me. I didn’t plan to be an autism advocate. You could say advocacy found me.

If it came to kids with autism, like my beloved son, I found I had a passion for helping. When I’d done as much as I could on my own, it seemed quite natural to start a nonprofit.

The Special Needs Network now provides services to over 50,000 kids and families in LA County and has touched the lives of millions of kids and families all across California.

On April 29, 2019, Special Needs Network broke grounds on the Center for Autism and And Developmental Center (CAAD). This comprehensive center will be the first of its kind in the state of California. In conjunction with our partner, St. John Well Child and Family Center, CAAD will provide a health and wellness home for thousands of kids on the spectrum and their families. The center will provide medical and dental services; autism therapies including ABA therapy, speech and occupational therapy; job training; family counseling, and wellness classes. It will house a free legal clinic, parent center, tech and media center, outdoor sports courts, teen center, therapeutic gym and like skills kitchen.

The center will occupy the second floor of the 55,000 square foot, three story MLK Family and Wellness Center on the campus of the Martin Luther King Hospital Campus in the heart of the Watts/Willowbrook and Compton community.

The center is slated to open in late summer 2020. It will provide services to over 5,000 children a year and thousands of their family members.

SNN will also partner with local universities including Charles R. Drew University and other medical schools to provide training opportunities for clinicians and other health care professionals and to conduct cutting edge research.

SNN hopes that this center will become a model that can be replicated in other parts of the state and country.

What’s you unique about your model? In particular how it caters to parents. 

SNN is unique because its more than an autism organization; it’s morphed into a social justice organization focused on addressing issues of disparities in healthcare, education and economic inequalities for marginalized populations. SNN recognizes that in order to effectively serve children or adults with autism, you must support and strengthen their parents and family unit. Ninety percent of the demographic that we serve are African American, Latino, Asia or other minorities. And that same percentage are low to low/moderate income with many living below the poverty line as indicated by state and national indicators.

All of our programs are free thereby any economic barriers that might prevent parents from participating. We have a Parent Advisory Council that provide critical information to our staff and that helps us ensure that we are meeting the needs identified by our parents. Our parents are also central to all of our programming. Parents serve as moderators, speakers, facilitators and key partners. We also provide free childcare, transportation, food and other support that makes it easier for parents to participate in our programs.

Images provided Maiwenn Raoult 

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