Mount Desert Island tween Faith Reece loves to travel. But the 11-year-old struggles to stand in line for long periods at places such as airports or amusement parks.
Faith was born with cerebral palsy, which can make traveling a challenge. Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder that often causes movement and coordination problems, including stiff muscles or exaggerated reflexes. Faith is able to walk with braces on her legs, but her overall mobility is slow.
Still, it’s not enough to stop her and her family from taking three large, often international, trips every year.
Stephanie Kelley-Reece, Faith’s mother, said it’s important to her and her husband, Mark Reece, to introduce Faith and her brother Logan, 8, to the world beyond MDI.
“I live on this tiny island, and there’s not a lot of culture here,” Kelley-Reece said. “It’s very cozy and quaint here … but it’s a big world out there, and I don’t want my kids to be scared of the world or think they have to stay within New England.”
Until now, researching arrangements and potential obstacles her family might face when traveling have fallen to Kelley-Reece. However, a new travel company called Special Globe, founded by Northeast Harbor mother Meg Harris for families such as the Reeces, could go a long way to help families with special needs negotiate the sometimes difficult task of planning a trip.
Kelley-Reece said one of the most attractive parts of the site is the hotel listings Harris has vetted for features attractive to special needs families, such as first-floor rooms.
“If I saw a resort [on the site] that would better accommodate us, that would be really good,” she said.
A dream in the night
Special Globe started a little more than 18 months ago with a voice in the dark. Harris, a single mother of two — Eliza, 8, and Henry, 6 — woke up with a start on June 5, 2014, when she thought she heard someone say the words “special globe.”
After searching the house for the source of the voice and not finding anything, she returned to bed. But the next morning, she had a mission.
“It was really strange, kind of like a man’s voice, and when I heard [the words] ‘special globe,’ I thought, ‘that’s a strange thing to say,’” Harris said. “[But] I just felt like it had to be something important.”
She purchased the website domain specialglobe.com for $11 and went to work, figuring out what the voice had been trying to tell her to do.
Partly because of her love of travel and partly inspired by Eliza, who was diagnosed with Atypical Rett syndrome at age 1, Harris began planning a company that would serve as a resource database and a service connecting families with special needs-friendly hotels, activities and services at destinations around the world. Atypical Rett syndrome is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can cause anything from severe intellectual deficit to seizures.
“As a kid I traveled a lot, and I really wanted to do that with Eliza and Henry, but the resources out there were pretty nonexistent for families like mine,” she said.
Encouraging positive experiences
Harris secured a first round of funding through donations from friends, family and “angel investors,” totaling upwards of $175,000.
Using her own trips as a blueprint, she started writing itineraries for other families interested in traveling. She also partnered with several hotels to offer Special Globe users discounts and created a “customize your trip tool” that will connect families with a travel agent trained on working with special needs families.
Avid travelers, the Harris family traveled extensively throughout the U.S. Within the next year, they hope to go global with a trip to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Harris said while it can seem intimidating at first, traveling with Eliza has been beneficial for the girl’s development, and staff at hotels and attractions are usually very accommodating of her needs.
“It’s always been positive, it’s kind of been beyond positive,” she said. “People always seem to accept having her, they actually embrace her and [are] overly kind and sweet.”
Harris also employed the help of her lifelong friend, now co-founder, Jonathan Yardley, to focus on the business specifics while she focused on the vision and making connections.
“I remember telling Jon, ‘I want to create a TripAdvisor for special needs families. … I have the vision, but I need you to help execute this for me.’”
The site, which launched earlier this month, includes information about where to stay, what to do, tips for traveling and blog posts written by families who enjoy traveling despite having children with special needs.
It has been reviewed on several parenting website and Kelley-Reece said she sees it quickly becoming a valuable resource to families of all types.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, and I think that’s why it’s good,” she said. “It’s also great because it caters to a wide range of disabilities. With Faith, she’s more on the mild side, but I’m sure for children in wheelchairs traveling is a whole different ball game.”
Before starting Special Globe, Harris had her own recruiting services, where she learned to use social media sites like LinkedIn to build connections.
With a new focus, she put those skills to use and connected herself and the mission of Special Globe to the heads of companies that include Enterprise Rent-A-Car and the head of Special Olympics.
Overwhelmingly, she heard support for her idea and surprise the services weren’t already offered.
“I would get to the heads of these companies and they would tell me, ‘Your story is so inspirational,’” Harris said. “It’s been super cool and a bit of a whirlwind.”
A quick search of the Internet shows that Harris’ company is unique, in that most of the information about traveling with special needs children is located on personal blogs or deep in the annals of sites such as TripAdvisor. It also primarily focuses on American Disabilities Act compliance instead of cognitive obstacles families may face.
Special Globe instead acts as a sort of one-stop shop.
“I want it to be a sort of resource hub where they can be inspired and research,” Harris said. “It’s all about fear and safety and the way to combat fear is knowledge.”
In the coming months, Harris plans to apply for a 501(c)(3) classification for a nonprofit educational arm of Special Globe. She hopes to reach out to travel agencies, hotels and other vacation services offering sensitivity training for staff and talking with them about how to market specifically to families with special needs.
The company also will roll out plans for a second and third round of funding, including a campaign on the fundraising site fundable.com.
She hopes to keep traveling and encourage her children and the families of other special needs children to worry less about the obstacles they may face and more about providing unique experiences.
“Childhood is such a good time for them to travel,” Harris said. “They get used to being out on the road or traveling on an airplane, but they’re also little sponges. Whether they know it or not, they are building memories.”
As for the Reece family, after ziplining through Costa Rica earlier this year, they’re headed up north for a chillier vacation in St. John. Next year, they may attempt Europe. After that, Kelley-Reece said, the possibilities are endless.
“We don’t make traveling a big deal. It’s just what we do,” Kelley-Reece said. “Yes, it can be very overwhelming. But you aren’t going to know until you do it, and the more you do it the easier it gets.”