Help, encouragement, advocation, resources, training and support are the essence of what HEARTS Connection has been to Kern County for the past 30 years. The program serves families by providing support groups and training to better aid their special-needs child. HEARTS Connection also provides training on the transition children make when entering and leaving high school.

HEARTS Connection is made up of five staff members who work remotely around Bakersfield, Delano, Tehachapi, Lake Isabella and Ridgecrest.

HEARTS Connection Director Susan Graham said many of the parents who connect with the program want to talk to another person who can relate to their struggles.

“One of the things that is very unique about HEARTS Connection is that our employees are either the parent of a child with a disability or they have a close relative that has a disability. That gives us a unique perspective. When parents call us, we have that personal connection,” said Susan.

Susan herself has not only been a part of the organization for 21 years, but is a founding parent of HEARTS Connection.

“My daughter was born with Rett syndrome. I wasn’t big on support groups because I thought I wasn’t going to meet someone with the same thing my child has. HEARTS Connection started with a retreat and I met parents whose child had the same disabilities. It was a great bonding experience,” said Susan.

Parent and Wasco resident Alma Acosta has been a part of the HEARTS Connection program for four years, advocating for her 12-year-old autistic son, Daniel.

Alma admitted that before seeking help from the organization, she would sit through Individualized Education Program meetings with Daniel’s school and not fully understand what their plan was to help Daniel.

“When I came into the group, I wasn’t the only parent going through the same thing. I found the support and resources for my son. It has created a bond for me and friendships,” said Alma.

Another parent, Delano resident Michelle Ruiz, describes the everyday struggle to raise a special-needs child. Michelle raised Leo, an autistic 22-year-old. Leo is also a stroke victim and has hydrocephalus, a condition that occurs when fluid in the brain cannot drain away into the bloodstream because the usual pathways are blocked.

“(Leo) is a 4-year-old in a 22-year-old body. Every day is hard. People on the outside don’t understand what we have to deal with. They don’t learn like the typical child. It took Leo seven years to get off diapers. He had to walk with a walker until he was 5 years old. It takes time and patience,” said Michelle.

Michelle said most special-needs children are not able to verbalize what they need and that HEARTS Connection taught her how she was able to help Leo throughout the years.

“You have to have patience with this. It’s your basic thing we do every day that we take for granted. Kids who are born different, they have a lot more struggles in life and have to work 10–20 times more than a typical child,” said Michelle.

Just like Susan, Michelle and Teresa Olivares, Alma agrees that HEARTS Connection became more of a family than just a monthly support group.

“It’s like we found our tribe. We finally found people that understood who we were and that we were all looking for resources because there wasn’t the internet at the time,” said Susan.

Bakersfield resident and single parent Teresa Olivares raised two special-needs children, 24-year-old Teresita, who has cerebral palsy, and 5-year-old Lupito, who has autism.

Teresa said it was challenging to raise two disabled children alone but since joining HEARTS Connection, she has gained patience, progress and a team of people behind her.

“They feel alone and they feel isolated. Even if they have family members, they don’t know that there’s another world out there. There’s a whole community. When they come to us, we get into their diagnosis and see if we can get that help and go further and how they can learn,” said HEARTS Connection resource specialist Elva Darrett.

Though it seems every day of being a parent to a special-needs child can be a challenge, Susan admits there are moments of joy parents share when raising their children.

“You don’t have to meet another parent that has the same disability as yours. There’s so much more you have in common than what a disability is. It’s exciting when parents share accomplishments with their child,” said Susan.

Michelle shares that establishing repetition and a routine for special-needs children help them learn, like turning on electronic devices on their own.

“(Leo) surprises me every day with new things he knows how to do. He’s constantly showing me he knows how to do something. Those are the things we get excited for — the small, little things,” said Michelle.

Teresa said that because of the support from HEARTS Connection, she is able to understand Teresita's and Lupito’s needs.

“It’s a blessing from God raising two disabled kids because he doesn’t give it to just anybody. HEARTS Connection was able to help me. It’s not easy until you’ve been through it,” said Teresa.

Susan encourages other special-needs parents to connect with them so they can better understand their child.

“The resources you can learn from other families are so valuable. Some people never knew we existed and wished they knew sooner. When your child is first diagnosed, you think about what you need to do and how you’ll get through the week. You don’t reach out but that’s valuable,” said Susan.

Susan hopes for HEARTS Connection to grow farther in areas of Kern County and to be able to reach more families who need help with their special-needs child. HEARTS Connection is sustained by grants and donations. Visit www.heartsfrc.org to find out more information and different ways to help. 

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