From the Homefront: Special needs advocate named Coast Guard Spouse of the Year

Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 16 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network.

Coast Guard Spouse of the Year, Mary Nelson, poses with her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class James Nelson, and two of their three children, Wyatt, 8, and Coleman, 4. Photo courtesy of Military Spouse Magazine - Dragonflies Photography.

Coast Guard Spouse of the Year, Mary Nelson, poses with her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class James Nelson, and two of their three children, Wyatt, 8, and Coleman, 4. Photo courtesy of Military Spouse Magazine – Dragonflies Photography.

Written by Shelley Kimball

When her son was first diagnosed with autism, Mary Nelson struggled to find the right services for him. She didn’t know where to go or whom to ask for help or information.

Coast Guard Spouse of the Year. Mary Nelson, poses for a photo. Photo courtesy of Military Spouse Magazine - Dragonflies Photography.

Coast Guard Spouse of the Year. Mary Nelson, poses for a photo. Photo courtesy of Military Spouse Magazine – Dragonflies Photography.

Little things compounded and they became big issues. She was frustrated to realize that after buying a house, the schools nearest to her family were not equipped to help kids on the autism spectrum. She ended up driving 25 minutes each way every day to get him to the right school. He couldn’t ride a bus because he is nonverbal, and the ride would have taken about 1 ½ hours, she said. These are all of the kinds of details she wished she had known earlier to help her plan and respond better.

Since then, she has aimed to make sure no one else struggles in the same way. Her efforts earned her this year’s Armed Forces Insurance Coast Guard Spouse of the Year award.

“I’m very passionate about helping families to access services easily,” she said. “If I have to do it in my spare time, it’s worth every minute. It’s our kids’ lives and their futures are at stake.”

Nelson, who is married to Petty Officer 1st Class James Nelson, lives in Clearwater, Florida. They have three sons, Austin, 19, Wyatt, 8, and Coleman, 4. They are preparing to transfer this summer to Jacksonville, Florida. Austin recently joined the Coast Guard and he is stationed at a small boat station in Florida.

When Wyatt was first diagnosed about 5 years ago, Mary said, she felt like she was on her own. She realized that as families are categorized in the Special Needs Program, more and more families with children on the autism spectrum would be transferred to Clearwater because it is one of the few air stations that can meet the needs of the families. She recognized that there would be an influx of families sooner than later, and she needed to help prepare them.

Coast Guard Spouse of the Year, Mary Nelson, poses with her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class James Nelson. Photo courtesy of Military Spouse Magazine - Dragonflies Photography.

Coast Guard Spouse of the Year, Mary Nelson, poses with her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class James Nelson. Photo courtesy of Military Spouse Magazine – Dragonflies Photography.

It started out as private messages from friends of friends who were thinking of coming to Clearwater. Then she noticed a pattern. In early spring, people started asking questions abut the area: Who had a great doctor? Which schools were best for kids in the special needs program? Where to live to be closest to services?

“I realized people need this,” Mary said. “I just really tried to make a point to help families find homes that are going to be in the area that I know that there are going to be services at those public schools.”

Word of mouth turned into reaching out to families before they arrived. She finds new families through other Coast Guard families or through Facebook pages like one devoted to Coast Guard families who have children on the autism spectrum or the Coast Guard Special Needs Families page.

“Being plugged in – networking is huge,” she said.

The Nelson family is preparing to transfer this summer and have already scouted homes and resources ahead. And she has forged connections with other families who know the best resources in what will be the Nelson’s new city.

And as she leaves one city for another, she said, she knows that there are families in place to carry on by welcoming and assisting new families.

“One of the most rewarding things I have seen is to see families who are stationed here, and to see these same spouses that I helped a year ago, not only to obtain services but to get a diagnosis, turn around and pay that forward,” she said. “It’s pretty incredible. It makes my heart swell to see.”

Coast Guard Spouse of the Year, Mary Nelson, poses with her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class James Nelson, and two of their three children, Wyatt, 8, and Coleman, 4. Photo courtesy of Military Spouse Magazine - Dragonflies Photography.

Coast Guard Spouse of the Year, Mary Nelson, poses with her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class James Nelson, and two of their three children, Wyatt, 8, and Coleman, 4. Photo courtesy of Military Spouse Magazine – Dragonflies Photography.

She said she would tell other Coast Guard families to speak up and ask for what they need because there are other families out there ready to help.

“Don’t be afraid to speak about it. It’s a big deal,” she said. “It’s such a big weight off your chest.”

Mary said being selected as the Coast Guard spouse of the Year means the chance to continue to empower families to find the services they need for their kids.. She said she is looking forward to sharing her experiences with others, and also hearing from other Coast Guard families.

“But more importantly, it gives me hope to be able to continue to learn, to be that dry sponge, to continue to learn from all of the other spouses,” she said.

What keeps her going is the thought that she can save families from the stress she experienced trying to find resources for her son.

“You can’t let big setbacks keep you down,” she said. “Take everything as a learning experience. You can’t move forward without failure. I’d like to be able to pass that along and help others to feel more confident in their knowledge and in their ability to find those resources that they need. And to keep their heads lifted, their chins up.”

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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