Legacy of Hope Austin

Kids with Special Needs Dream Big at Legacy of Hope Austin

Julie Lyles Carr was asked a life-changing question five years ago: "What is the one thing you would like to do to impact your community?"

As a mother of eight, including two children with special needs, Carr knew that "families with children that have special needs often can't afford basic programs such as sports, arts, dance lessons, or other services that many families take for granted. Even if the finances are there, often the opportunity is not there because either the service is not available or there are more urgent care issues that take up the families' time and resources."

Carr told TechSoup that she had "a longing to bring opportunities to celebrate these amazing children and their families through the arts, through nights out, and through creating support programs that could bring a bit of ease to their lives."

Armed with this vision, Carr secured a private grant and launched Legacy of Hope Austin (LOH) in 2010. Carr became the executive director for LOH and initiated the 2dance2dream and 2night2dream programs within a few short months.

Birth of Dreams: Creative Expression for Kids

The 2dance2dream program is designed for children with special needs to creatively express themselves through movement and music. The program offers year-round dance lessons and an annual competition to 80 children with special needs through the assistance of 80 volunteers and four professional dance schools. The program is directed by professional dancer McKenna-Jane Carr (Julie Lyles Carr's daughter).

This flagship program is unique, differentiating LOH from other organizations that serve children with special needs. The program has also been extremely popular. In fact, 2dance2dream opened a satellite branch in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in February 2015 and has been approached by professional dance schools in Dallas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

Support for Parents of Kids with Special Needs, Too

LOH also serves the parents of children with special needs — who often need intensive care for their kids and can't call neighbors or friends for assistance. LOH's 2night2dream program provides a monthly "date night" opportunity for parents of 30 families who have children with special needs.

Stacey Clements, an RN who specializes in pediatric care, oversees the 2night2dream program. Stacey and three volunteers provide fun, safe, and specialized care for the children and a break for their busy parents.

Meeting of the Minds: an Engineer with a Desire to Help

Cisco Systems engineering manager Roland Holloway nearly reached the point of needing hospice care due to complications from cancer. After a surprising recovery, he wanted to help others in need, particularly those with disabilities.

In late 2013, he helped purchase a wheelchair-accessible van to assist his disabled colleague, Johnny Taylor, who runs a veterans' outreach nonprofit called Promised Land Foundation. In late 2014, Holloway was ready to help another local nonprofit. He learned about the 2dance2dream program after meeting Julie Lyles Carr at his church, LifeAustin. Holloway had also discovered his employer's Employee Product Donation Program (EPDP).

Through this program, Holloway realized that he could donate technology to a nonprofit by providing 25 percent of the retail price of Cisco products, while Cisco covered the remaining 75 percent of the cost. This would allow him to give substantially more to assist those in need. During its five-year duration, the Cisco EPDP has granted over $5.4 million in Cisco products.

Holloway quickly realized that Cisco networking equipment would help 2dance2dream broadcast and share its message with the community. Carr is thrilled and touched when somebody understands LOH's mission, whether they have a loved one with special needs or not (such as Holloway). "People get it; there's something moving about seeing the kids celebrate during and after these performances. They get why it is so important for all of us as a community to experience."

A Cisco Switch Helps Make the Invisible Visible

Through the Cisco EPDP, Holloway obtained and installed (with the support of volunteers) the Catalyst 3850 Series Switch, which was LOH's first choice of product. "Anything that helps get the message out through technology is so important," Carr says. Access to technology, like the 3850 switch, helps the organization because it "allows volunteer IT and media staff to have what they need to best tell our story."

The biggest changes for LOH after using the 3850 switch are getting the word out to a larger audience, allowing more creativity with the videography of a performance, creating more media moments, and enabling an increased social media presence. Carr believes these capabilities are allowing LOH to "help make an invisible population visible."

Carr adds that she "appreciates that Cisco puts a high premium on making sure that nonprofits have the equipment they need to tell their story and help everyone function better as a community." Carr also asserts that it is "helpful and very powerful to know that Cisco understands, cares about, and wants to celebrate children with special needs." She saysthat the Cisco EPDP donation is a "strong validation that technology and the arts are intertwined and those in the tech field understand the beauty of how they work together."

The Cisco equipment also allows LOH to be multi-site. Particularly for children with special needs, LOH can't ask families to come to just one location for dance instruction and performance. Carr and her crew must go to them in order to be accessible and effective.

One additional (and unexpected) benefit of Holloway's Cisco equipment donation is that it improved LOH volunteers' experience. Carr said, "If a piece of technology makes a volunteer's job easier and keeps them engaged � awesome! It's a win for the volunteer, a win for LOH, and a win for the kids."

Next Steps for Legacy of Hope Austin

"Cisco systems will be extremely powerful particularly as LOH continues to grow," Carr advises. Through the Cisco EPDP donation, LOH can "utilize technology better and equip more dance schools more quickly."

Carr's long-term vision is to grow nationally and to be able to connect all LOH locations with networked video broadcasts that will increase fundraising, education, and collaboration opportunities for those serving the special needs community. LOH also plans to conduct a large conference for dance instructors to teach them how to include children of all abilities in dance classes. Carr's daughter, McKenna-Jane, will be one of the primary organizers of the conference, which will help like-minded souls serve children with special needs in their own community.

At the rate that Carr is charging ahead, Legacy of Hope will likely be serving children and families in a city near you soon.

This story originally appeared on the TechSoup Blog. It was written by Jon Rush, relationship manager, TechSoup.