Leaving Your Comfort Zone

By Darlene Gildersleeve

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Darlene Gildersleeve and her daughters arrive at the NH State House for the Budget Hearing.

In 2012, my son was diagnosed with a disability. I was in shock and felt scared and alone.  Looking for help, I found the Family Voices Facebook page.  Immediately, I was connected to a community of parents who understood what I was going through.  Through Family Voices I met another mom, who told me about the Institute on Disability’s Leadership Series and encouraged me to apply. I was going through a painful divorce and between taking my son to counseling, specialists, and attending stressful IEP meetings, there was no time to do anything for myself.

Fast forward to 2017.  My 11 year old daughter had been in the school nurse’s office over 20 times in a week.  Something was terribly wrong.  Twice I requested a Special Education Evaluation and was denied. Then came one of the worst moments of my life.  The school called to tell me my daughter was suicidal.  I rushed to the school and arrived to see my scared, crying daughter being put in the back of a police car.  For three days, she was held like a prisoner in the loud, bright, and scary hospital emergency department.  I cried more than I ever have in my life.  On my knees I prayed she would get treatment and would live.

With no pediatric mental health beds in New Hampshire, my daughter has been hospitalized six times out of state.  When another request for a Special Education Evaluation was met with resistance, I found the strength to be my child’s advocate and succeeded in getting an IEP in place. It was time to finally apply to the Leadership Series.

I walked into my first Leadership class shaking and nervous.  For the first time ever, I was leaving my toddler, pre-teen, and older teenage son overnight.  As we shared our stories, I saw others were nervous too.  This was about to change.  At each monthly training session, with guidance from excellent group leaders, we were being pushed out of our comfort zones and becoming more and more confident.

I found the courage to testify at two public sessions for New Hampshire’s 10 Year Mental Health Plan.  I advocated for a plan that address children’s mental health; something previous plans have not done.  I learned about the Children’s Behavioral Health Collaborative and signed up for their legislative advocacy training. It was fantastic!  This was followed by Leadership’s session with state legislators; each class member invited their legislators to attend. I had never made a call to a legislator. When I called Senator Feltes’ office, I was trembling.  The calls to my representatives were easier.

In February, my daughter Anna and I testified in support of bill which would expand the state’s behavioral health services to include Mobile Crisis Response Services for children. We were interviewed by a reporter following up on the hearing. Our story made the front page of the Concord Monitor!  I testified on other mental health bills and legislation to establish Paid Family Medical Leave, something especially important to me as I was unable to work when my daughter was hospitalized.  I wrote my first letter to the editor and it was published. I have testified at the State Budget hearing and advocated for full funding of the 10-Year Mental Health Plan.  In March I spoke at the State House rally urging the Governor to sign the paid family and medical leave bill that was passed by the legislature.  I am currently working with the Hopkinton School District to set up a Parent-School Special Education Partnership Group for our community.

None of this would have been possible without the knowledge, confidence, and empowerment that the Leadership Series has given me. I am so grateful for this opportunity and encourage others who want to make a difference to apply to the New Hampshire Leadership Series.

DRC-NH, in collaboration with the UNH Institute on Disability and the New Hampshire Council on Developmental Disabilities, distribute a quarterly RAP sheet to educate community members and policy makers about the latest research, policy, practice, and advocacy issues affecting individuals with disabilities and their families.


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