March 17, 2018
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Special-needs children lead parents to self-employment

By Gigi Guyton, Special to the BDN

One issue faced by individuals who come to Women, Work, and Community is the overwhelming challenge of raising a special-needs child in the home. In many instances, self-employment ideas are launched either out of necessity or as an idea that was sparked by the particular needs of the child.

The Catherine E. Cutler Institute for Child and Family Policy released a study in 2006 reporting that one in 10 children in Maine, or 10.4 percent, has a diagnosed disability and-or chronic health condition. The report then noted that parents of these children face significant challenges in finding and keeping child care, maintaining stable employment and meeting the special needs of their children.

Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, has a son with Asperger’s syndrome and is all too familiar with this issue.

“What happened in my experience while raising my son, who’s almost 20, a crisis would pop up and I had to be available at a moment’s notice to go to the school and advocate for him,” said Volk. “Teachers don’t normally communicate with parents in the evenings. They work daytime hours.”

Volk, 42, says she decided to work from home out of necessity. The key advantage is flexibility, she said. Volk took over her mother-in-law’s business, Personally Yours, featuring custom-printed invitations, announcements and stationery.

“Personally Yours is your run-of-the-mill home-based business,” she said, noting that technology is making it easier for home-based businesses to survive. She has an active website and does a lot of out-of-state business online.

“I took a Christmas card order once from a woman in Germany. You can reach the entire world from your home office,” she said.

Ivonne Vazquez, 45, was a single mom with two children at home, one with autism, when she launched her home-based business in 2009 called VIVA — Virtually Indispensable Virtual Assistants — providing virtual administrative support services.

“The needs of my family and the needs of my employer were coming to a head,” she said.

Vazquez said that there were things she had to attend to during her autistic son’s last year of high school.

“I wanted to make sure he was on target academically in school, and going into college,” she said. “Some of the meetings ran an hour and a half to three hours. It became unfair to the employer to attend to the child’s needs, and unfair to the parent to not attend to the child’s needs when decisions affect the rest of their lives.”

Her special-needs son is entering his second year of college at an art school in New Hampshire.

Lisa McLeod, 44, started Tourmaline Hill Farm in 2006 geared toward her daughter’s dietary needs. Her daughter has celiac disease, a digestive condition triggered by the consumption of the protein gluten. Her daughter is also lactose intolerant. Her condition caused her tremendous pain from the foods she ate.

“She screamed her entire young life,” McLeod said. “She would stand in the corner on her tippy toes and scream until she was purple, and collapse until she started all over.” McLeod said her daughter had these episodes a couple of times a day until their doctor diagnosed the problem. “This was the beginning of a whole new lifestyle,” McLeod said.

During her quest for the foods her daughter could consume, the woman she was buying milk from suggested McLeod start making cheeses. “We started with two goats, and two turned into 80 goats.” McLeod said. “Having a business at home provided her with food she was able to eat and be available to her.”

Today, Tourmaline Hill Farm has registered Nubian and Lamancha dairy goats on 26 acres in Greenwood. Their products include goat’s milk, cheeses and meat. Some of the places their products can be found are Whole Foods in Portland, The Green Spot in Oxford, and through the Crown of Maine Organic Cooperative, to name a few.

“The business got started because of her food needs. We transitioned from feeding her into feeding everybody,” McLeod said.

Rep. Volk says support of each other is key in these special-needs circumstances.

“Women need to seek out support to be the best parent you can be to that child, and if that means you work from home and develop a home-based business, that might be a great choice.”

Gigi Guyton is microenterprise coordinator for Women, Work, and Community covering Cumberland and York counties. Her office is in South Portland, and can be reached at 799-5025 or by email at

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