Date: February 1, 2012
What would you do if you won $100,000? Wake Forest mom Melissa Matthews was cooking dinner Jan. 2 when she got a call telling her that she had just won a year-long sabbatical worth $100,000 in an IKEA contest designed to improve the life of others.
The mother of a 3-year-old with Down syndrome, Matthews says she saw firsthand how technology helped children with special needs at her son's school. The Frankie Lemmon School in Raleigh serves kids with intellectual disabilities, and iPads helped her son's classmates communicate their thoughts using pictures so that eventually they could utter their first words. Matthews' project, which won the most online votes in IKEA's national contest, spelled out how she would extend the reach of technology to help children with special needs.
Although the contest had more than 1,000 entrants, Matthews won the grand prize because she gained a loyal following of people who voted for her day after day, at home and around the world, for a month through Dec. 23, 2011. Local school kids, church congregations and parent groups all voted for her, and the experience of being embraced by so many people was moving, she said in a recent interview.
"Obviously, winning the prize is such a dream come true. It's just wonderful," she said. "But the concept itself has been such a gift in its own right. When you find out that you have a child with special needs, as a parent, you worry that your child will be accepted by the community and included in activities. It was such a blessing for us at Christmastime—for all the parents at the school, we were saying—to have such community support."
Janet Sellers, Frankie Lemmon's executive director, described the support as "huge." "I was thrilled," she said. "We had people voting in Canada, Japan, Germany and certainly all of the U.S. It was very cool for some of the connections that we made with people."
People voted who knew and loved the school, she said, while others simply voted because they saw the contest online. "Some of them had children with Down syndrome, and perhaps that was why. And the Triangle Down Syndome network sent it out every day, just to remind people to vote. It was a big, big, following."
Matthews says one of her favorite moments during the contest came after her aunt who works as nurse in a hospital in Wisconsin sent out an email with a link to Matthews' online video about the Frankie Lemmon project to the hospital staff asking them to vote. One of the doctors who got the email was staying in the hospital with his wife who had just had a baby born with Down syndrome, which came as a surprise.
After the couple saw Matthews' video showing the kids Frankie Lemmon school, the new mom said, "Oh my gosh, 'I want to talk with this girl.'" Matthews recalls. "This mom called me and she was like, 'It was so neat. We were in a state of shock and then we saw this video. And what we saw was everybody was smiling and happy, and the kids were so cute and smiling and happy and learning.' And she said, 'thank you so much for that video.'"
Matthews' winnings will be used to help the school buy more devices, such as SmartBoards and iPads for use in the classrooms. Currently, children must wait their turn to use the iPads to express themselves. Cutting that wait will open up new worlds for the children, Sellers said.
"Every child deserves to have a voice, and that is part of what the iPads give them," she said. "But they are also getting social skills because they are able to interact with the other children. They are getting self confidence because they are being understood. It increases their play skills. ... When the communication piece is in place, it just helps builds all these other skills also."
Matthews has designated 20 percent of her prize money to go toward a new school building fund for the Frankie Lemmon School, Sellers said. The school, which currently serves 25 children in-house and 15 more through outreach, is looking for a new building in the next couple of years. Matthews also plans to launch a website to help to share Frankie Lemmon's curriculum and invite teachers across the country to share their own ideas for helping special-needs children.
She compared winning to the effects of a pebble thrown into a stream. "There are ripples of good things that will come from this contest," she said. "It is so outreaching."
On a more personal note, Matthews says she's very excited about meeting Dr. Martha Beck, The Oprah Magazine's life coach, who will be giving her a life-coaching session at a spa resort in Phoenix, as part of the winner's package. Beck also raised a child with Down syndrome and wrote a book about her experience called "Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth and Everyday Magic." Although the two women have never actually met or spoken, Matthews says Beck's book was a comfort to her when she was pregnant and discovered that her baby would have Down syndrome.
When Matthews finally meets Beck, she's hoping the author will travel back in time to share with her any life lessons she learned as a young mom.
"I was thinking how I wish I could go back in time and tell myself certain things, like when I found out that Aidan would have Down syndrome," Matthews said. "There are a lot of things I would like to say, to go back and say to myself, and what I'd like to ask her [Beck] is, 'If you could go back in time and talk to yourself when your child was 3, what would your advice be?'"
If you need Triangle-area resources for your child with special needs, see our Special Kids guide.
Whether your child has physical, mental or emotional disabilities; developmental delays; or chronic or life-threatening illnesses, you'll find local resources along with personal stories and advice.