American Heart: A Grandmother's Love Leads to School for Disabled Children

She couldn't find the right school for her grandson, so she built her own.

March 1, 2010, 2:51 PM

March 1, 2010— -- It is an unusual sight in the midst of this recession. Busloads of shoppers roll into the Cincinnati suburbs and stop at Donna Spiegel's chain of secondhand stores. Over the course of this Saturday, bargain hunters will shop at five Snooty Fox consignment shops -- stuffing the bus and its cargo bay with furniture and bags of clothing.

"I'm definitely going to have to stop at another ATM," said Karen Dunn, as she headed for the cash register with a large lamp tucked under each arm.

But these shoppers are getting more than just a bargain. Their purchases provide crucial help to children with disabilities, such as Spiegel's grandson Dayton.

"The diagnosis was devastating, just to hear cerebral palsy and not being in the special needs world, you're not even sure what that is," said Spiegel, "And then you hear he isn't going to walk. He's not going to talk."

The Spiegels initially took Dayton to physical and occupational therapy. Insurance covered one visit a week. But it didn't seem to be doing much.

"I'd leave an appointment in tears thinking, 'I'm not helping this child. I'm not getting anywhere,'" said Spiegel.

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Then she heard about something called conductive education, developed in Europe. It involves hours of intensive daily therapy designed to connect mind and muscle.

"If you wanted to be a great tennis player, golfer, you wouldn't take an hour-a-week lesson," said Spiegel. And you're trying to teach these children to sit up or feed themselves or walk ...a nd it's not gonna happen in 40 minutes a week."

But the closest school was in Michigan, hours away from where the Spiegels lived.

So Spiegel decided to use the profits from her stores to build her own school, the Conductive Learning Center of Greater Cincinnati. When asked why she was driven to do something so ambitious, Spiegel, with tears in her eyes, said, "Because I love him so much."

This grandmother's love started a flood of generosity. A local hospital rented the building for free, and a contractor donated the labor.

He wasn't the only one.

"Customers came in, painted, stripped off wallpaper. ... People are wonderful," said Spiegel. "You just ask, and they're there."

Ten students now attend this special school. And since the Snooty Fox stores cover 80 percent of the school's budget, parents pay what they can afford.

That is why Amy Smith drives her daughter Hannah nine hours each week from Richmond, Va. Hannah has spina bifida, and when she was born, doctors said she would never walk. With the use of two canes, she now races across the classroom on her feet.

"Coming to a place like this and being told she can do this, we can see this potential in her, and then actually see that it happens. ... It's just an indescribable joy," said Amy.

Special School, Paid for by Thrift Shops

Three-year-old Jackson Paeth has made progress too. When he first started, he couldn't sit up on his own. Now he holds onto a chair and takes a few steps. His tiny Nike sneakers make slow progress across the classroom. He smiles widely. So does his mother, Cheryl, watching through a window in the door.

"He can sit up much more independently now, play with puzzles and games, and his trucks and be a boy like all of the other healthy children," his mother said. "This school is more valuable than I can ever express in words."

The school has also helped Spiegel's grandson, Dayton, at age 7 take his first steps.

"He just took off and walked down the aisle," said Spiegel. "Talk about not having a dry eye in the place."

A grandmother's love and ingenuity, changing what parents can believe for their children.

"I really didn't have any hope," said Spiegel. "I didn't know where life was going to go for Dayton or for us, and now I just see happy days."