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Big Grit: Valerie Aprahamian

Valerie Aprahamian, who is the founder of Advocates for Angels, joins Small Biz Buzz in our Big Grit docuseries to talk about how her company supports and protects parents of children with special needs and developmental disorders through their Individual Education Programs (IEPs).

Valerie’s daughter, Chanel, was diagnosed with autism and a very life-threatening seizure disorder, at the age of three years old, by a team by pediatric neurologists at UCLA. That doctor told Valerie that Chanel would never read, write, talk or ever be successful in school. It was also most likely she would have to institutionalize her.

“At that time, I didn't even really know what autism was other than I knew it was a very profound disability,” said Valerie. “So immediately I started educating myself on special education law, and I started finding out what her needs were, what autism was, and how to get her the help she needed.”

Valerie was immediately awoken to the reality of special education, the bureaucracy of the institution, and the segregation that they placed upon these kids. She immediately knew she wanted her daughter in a regular school with regular kids in a general education class.

“They thought I was crazy because they weren't doing inclusion back then. So I was successful in having Chanel be placed in a general ed class at five years old,” said Valerie. “She was the first child with the diagnosis of autism to be placed in a general education classroom in my local school district. So that's the beginning of the story.”

Click play for more.


Speaker 1 (00:05):

What is Big Grit? Starting October 19th, Keap will begin a new documentary series devoted to the struggles, adaptation, and triumph of business owners like you, and how they've been able to thrive amid absolute chaos. Join us for a raw and unflinching look at what big grit means, if you have it, and how to find it when you need it most. Visit keap.com/B-I-G dash G-R-I-T. That's keap.com/big-grit. Subscribe to get updates on new episodes as they release. As a business owner, you know it takes something extra to succeed. See the stories of entrepreneurs that exemplified big grit. Visit keap.com/big-grit. See how people like you have found growth by filtering out the chaos. Once again, that's keap.com/big-grit. See for yourself how gritty entrepreneurs always make a way.

Laura (01:17):

Hello everyone. And welcome to another episode of Small Biz Buzz. I am Laura Dolan.

Crystal (01:22):

And I am Crystal Heuft.

Laura (01:23):

And today we are joined by Valerie Aprahamian, and she is the founder of Advocates for Angels. And it is an honor to have her on with us today, as she is one of our Big Grit customers in our Big Grit docu series. Valerie, thank you so much for joining us today. It is an honor to have you on.

Valerie (01:40):

Thank you, Crystal and Laura. I'm so excited to be here today.

Crystal (01:43):

We're definitely excited to have you. Your story is pretty amazing, so we're looking forward to diving right in. Can you tell us a little bit more about your business?

Valerie (01:52):

Yes. Advocates for Angels is an advocacy agency that started back in about 2005, even though I had been advocating regularly and professionally prior to that, but I was incorporated at that time. And I coach and empower parents to protect the rights of their child in special education.

Crystal (02:15):


Laura (02:16):

That's absolutely inspiring. I just want to say, just personally, I grew up with an autistic twin brother. And when I was writing your blog, it brought me to tears. And it was such an inspiring story. And that doesn't really happen to me very often when I'm writing some customer stories. I just appreciate all the effort and the advocacy that you provide out there. And I wish my parents knew you when we were growing up. My brother and I never went to the same school because of just the restrictions and the laws back then in the early 90s. Yeah, definitely amazing breakthroughs that you made in the system.

Valerie (02:57):

Yes. And that's just so sad, because he should have gone to his home school with all of his neighborhood friends and his sister. So yeah, we've come a long way with inclusion, but we still have a long way to go in terms of serving the children and getting their needs met. But yeah, that's the same time my daughter was going to school in the mid-90s. And yeah, things were just ramping up then. And that's really when autism started rising. And today it's one in 40, the low 40s somewhere. I think it's a lot lower than that because the CDC doesn't release the numbers until two years later. So it's just exponentially rising every year.

Crystal (03:44):

Well Valerie, I know your journey to entrepreneurship has not been easy, to say the least. Can you share a little bit of some of the reasons behind what you're doing and what led to you starting this business?

Valerie (03:58):

Yes, absolutely. My daughter Chanel, she was diagnosed with autism and a very life-threatening seizure disorder, at the age of three years old, by a team by pediatric neurologists at UCLA. And that doctor told me that Chanel would never read, she would never write, she would never talk, and she would never be successful in school. And she told me that I most likely would have to institutionalize her. And so at that time, I didn't even really know what autism was other than I knew it was a very profound disability. Because that's really, back then, most kids were profoundly disabled when they were diagnosed with autism. So I thought that's not true, my daughter isn't like that. What are you talking about? I never really internalized that or believed it for a second. And so immediately I started educating myself on special education law, and I started finding out what her needs were, what autism was, and how to get her the help that she needed.

Valerie (05:11):

And I immediately was awoken to the reality of special education and the bureaucracy of the institution, and then the segregation that they placed upon these kiddos. And immediately knew, I want my daughter in a regular school with regular kids in a general ed class. And then they thought I was crazy. Because they weren't doing inclusion back then. And so I was successful in having Chanel be placed in a general ed class at five years old. And she was the first child with the diagnosis of autism to be placed in a general education classroom in my local school district. So that's the [crosstalk 00:05:57] beginning of the story.

Laura (05:59):

Do you feel [crosstalk 00:05:59]... I just want to ask, do you feel like the teacher and the staff who took her on, do you feel like there were special qualifications there, or was it just a general classroom? Did you have any insight as to how she would be integrated into the classroom?

Valerie (06:19):

We were winging it. We were breaking new territory. And I was really a pioneer, just blazing my way through, knowing that I want her included. Because in my heart, it just didn't make sense to me to say, they're going to place all these kids and segregate them in the same classroom with other kids that aren't learning, aren't talking, and have disabilities. And then they're never allowed to be around typical developing kids, so they're just going to all model each other. What kind of sense does that make? And they [crosstalk 00:06:52] still do it today, which is crazy. So I just always knew, I'm never doing that to her.

Valerie (06:59):

Which I attribute to one of the reasons why she's so high functioning today and does so well today, because she never was segregated in a special ed class. But back then, no, we were just learning as we went. And teachers didn't know what to do or how to do it. And we made a lot of mistakes. And I mean, if I knew then what I know now, it would have been much different, but I have no regrets too. At least she did have those opportunities.

Crystal (07:34):

So speaking of blazing the trail, I heard you're a bit of a revolutionist. And I'm down for the revolt. So the rumor on the street is that you led an entire revolt against your school district. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and what that looked like?

Valerie (07:52):

Yes. This was later in the early 2000s. And so our school district was so adversarial, the administrators. Okay? I'm not talking about the teachers and the people at the school sites. The administration at the district office in special education, they were so adversarial and just corrupt really. And just, they would coerce and manipulate and threaten and intimidate parents during IEP meetings. And IEP stands for, individual education program. And so that is the legal document and the legal process that they must... Federal law oversees that. And they must have these meetings once a year to develop the special ed plan and allocate the funding for that individual child. So during these IEP meetings, these administrators would actually be screaming at parents. This one administrator, I remember him. He would stand up and his face would turn red, and his veins would be popping out of his neck because he would be so angry, screaming at parents that I was advocating for.

Valerie (09:08):

And it was that bad. And it was just insane. And just the mentality of their political agendas. Where they were, you're going to do what we say, and you don't have rights, and you're going to sign. Because once you sign your IEP, then they can wash their hands of you. They're done with you and they can do what they want. So when we don't sign, they can't implement it because they have to have our authorization. At least in California. Now in different states there's different laws. But in California, it was like that. Where we had to sign in order for them to do anything. And so we would never sign, and that's what would make them so mad. But they don't want parents to know their rights.

Valerie (09:56):

They don't want parents to know what special ed law is, and the IEP process, and know how to navigate that. Know what's available to their child, know what to ask for, know how to dissent when they offer something that is incorrect, or they don't want to agree to our requests. So there's a process, an appeal process, and that's what I teach parents. And so that would just make them so angry. So anyway, there were so many parents who were so unhappy and just up in arms with what was happening. And so I had a lot of connections with parents at that time. I probably had about 40 or 50 clients at that time. And so I got all these parents together and we actually led a revolt. I led a revolt with all these parents. We went to the school board meetings. And at a school board meeting you could go up and you could have three minutes to speak publicly at the school board meeting.

Valerie (10:57):

So I brought in 75 parents. And so we-

Crystal (11:01):

Oh my God, I love this. I love this.

Valerie (11:04):

The moms and dads. So the mom could tell half the story, the dad could tell the other half. And one family after another would go up and tell their horrific stories to the school board about how their special education department was coercing and intimidating them and not meeting the needs of children, and just really discriminating. Completely discriminating against kids and parents. And so then we did a protest. We were in the newspaper, we were on the news. And I filed 14 fair hearings against the school district all at the same time, which is, so we just bombarded them.

Crystal (11:45):

You were their worst nightmare. You have all the makings of an ideal revolt here. You rallied the troops, you got the media involved. You took their time, which that almost irritates them more than anything else. I am so impressed. It's amazing. So what came of the revolt? What were the next steps?

Valerie (12:04):

Then they, of course, fought us tooth and nail in those hearings. And it was pretty overwhelming for me, because I was working with another advocate and attorney. And just to that large of a project, 14 hearings is huge anyway, so we could barely keep up with it. They could barely keep up with it. So finally they waved the white flag and they said, "We give up, Valerie." And the next thing I knew, they had let go of all the administrators in special ed and brought in new administration who were [crosstalk 00:12:43] going to work with me and our families in that school district. And everything changed after that for the better.

Laura (12:51):

That is incredible. I wish you were around... I've been to my fair share of IEPs with my brother. And my mom actually passed away in 2006, and I became [crosstalk 00:12:59] one of his legal guardians, along with my father. And yeah, I can tell you horror stories about how pushy the administration can be. And not just the administration, but the social workers and the counselors. And how they feel like they know better than the parents and the family members and the siblings that are with them every single day, and observe them every single day, and know what's best for them. And I commend you. Like I said, I wish my parents knew you back in the day, because I think you would have been a huge help to them.

Valerie (13:29):

Yeah. There really was very few advocates back then. Very, very few. And even today there's not a whole lot of advocates. There's a lot of people that call themselves advocates, but they really aren't advocates. Because anyone could just slap the title advocate on you, because there isn't really a degree that you can get for advocacy. Now, unless you go to law school, but then you're an attorney. And the attorneys work completely different than I do. I don't do litigation. My intent isn't to go to litigation, my intent is to empower parents to learn their rights and to be able to go to their meetings and protect their rights, and get their child's needs met. And to build relationships with their teachers and school site administrators, because you got to be a team.

Valerie (14:21):

And so my second module in my program that I teach is how to become the coach of your IEP team. And so when you get to a place, special education really does work. And because I've seen it work beautifully, I've done it with hundreds of parents over the years. But it's a long road to get there, but it is possible.

Laura (14:43):

Do you think there's an intimidation factor there for advocacy? Do you think because people, they don't really know how to approach a special needs child and their family, do you think that could be the reason why a lot of advocates haven't stepped forward?

Valerie (14:56):

Well, what happens is, a lot of advocates, they know something about the law, but they don't know how to wit the game. Because that's what it is, it's a game. It's a mind game that they play. They have all these little tactics that they use with parents. And either they're over aggressive, and they come in and just escalate the emotions and the adversarial situation even more, instead of calming it down and getting to that team place. Or they lead the parents in the wrong direction, and they don't really know the law fully. Or they sit there and do nothing, they say nothing. So many parents will come to me go, "I hired an advocate and I paid them all this money, but they didn't do anything." And I said, "What do you mean?" And they said, "Well, when I would go to my IEP meetings they never said anything." And it just freaks me out. It's like, what?

Crystal (15:59):

What do you think motivates all of this from the school board to the advocates, to all of us? Is it financial motivation? Is it ignorance? Is it just pure, we don't know what to do, and we don't have the time to figure it out? What is the motivation behind making it so difficult?

Valerie (16:15):

Because the school district is a government agency, which is a bureaucratic institution. And bureaucratic institutions are all about power and control, right? And then they're vying for power at the top too. So the top administrators in special education, they are running the show. But then they're vying for control with the school board and the teacher's union. So that sits at the top. The admin at the special ed office, the school board and the teacher's union, and they sue each other all the time. They're always fighting between each other. And so then within the admin at the special ed department, they hold the power over the principals at the school site, who are the admin at the school site. And then the admin of the school site hold the power over the teachers. And then the teachers hold the power over the children.

Valerie (17:11):

So our kids are at the bottom of the pyramid, when they're the most important person. They're the customer, they're the stakeholder, but they get the least. They're not even considered because it's all about the political agendas of the administration at the top who want to hold the power over, down the pyramid steps. And they want to save the money. Absolutely, it's about money. And they feel like they're the gate holders. You don't get any money, you don't get any funding. You have to just take these little bread crumbs over here that we're offering you and sign your IEP. And it's not that way at all. Because the law is completely opposite of that. The IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is federal law, says that whatever your child needs, your child gets under IDEA. And school districts are responsible to meet the child's needs. Whatever's impeding that child from learning at school, they are required to address. And that means whatever therapy, whatever service, whatever educational program they need, they are required to provide.

Crystal (18:19):

I have to say, I am an avid voter. But I've always wondered, I don't know if I really have a place to vote on the school board because I'm not a mother. I have no clue what goes on there. And when I heard your story, I was like, man, I need to get better at educating myself about the school board. Because it really does flow all the way down. I know by the time this episode airs, we'll be over this election season. But why is it important for people to pay attention to the school board when they're having elections for those positions?

Valerie (18:52):

Because the school board has a lot of power. This is a big problem. If more advocates like me... See, every advocate has their little niche too. So I work with advocates that work with litigation issues in their local school district, which is completely different. Or they lobby in their local government agencies there. And so there's different little sections of advocacy. So a lot of advocates will run for the school board, because they want to have the voice to give input about special education. So whenever someone runs for the school board that you know is on the children's side, and isn't in cahoots with the school district and their political agenda, those are the people that we want to vote in. But the problem is, is there aren't enough of those people that run like that. So we need more of that.

Laura (19:53):

We need more, definitely need more support with that. And I do want to mention that my brother... I grew up in San Diego, so we were familiar with the California law. And he's still in Chula Vista in a group home. And he's being very well taken care of and he's doing great.

Valerie (20:11):

That's awesome.

Laura (20:11):

But yeah, that's just amazing. I feel like I'm not alone. And I'm sure you went through this too. Sometimes you feel like, does anyone actually understand what I'm going through? What my family's going through? And I feel like it's a smaller community, families who are helping their special needs relatives, whether they're children or siblings or parents. I'm so happy that you're out there and that you're a voice, because we definitely need more of you out there for sure.

Valerie (20:44):

Thank you. The thing is though, is that now it is a huge issue with kids being born with neurological disabilities. Like I said, it's one in somewhere mid 40s to lower 40s of autistic kids are being born today. And kids ages three to 18, four in 20 have one or more developmental or neurological disabilities. So it is a huge issue now. So there's really a huge population of parents that need help now, but it just seems like there's nobody. But it's not true, there's massive amounts of kids. I mean, how many kids have ADHD that you can think about? I mean, they're everywhere.

Valerie (21:29):

And kids have learning disabilities. Kids who have dyslexia, that can't read. And there's so many other components with neurological disabilities that never go diagnosed, that are never uncovered. And kids who struggle with learning, they typically have some kind of neurological thing going on, but they never get help. And they struggle all the way through school, and some of them don't graduate. Or they end up being behavioral issues, and they end up getting expelled. Or they get with the wrong crowd because they're not learning. So it's a huge problem.

Laura (22:03):

And there's a reason why they call it a spectrum, because it can go from... It sounds like your daughter is way more high functioning than my brother. He didn't have the cognitive ability to be able to read and speak. So it's definitely, it just depends on the child for sure. You can't group them into one, like they all belong in this classroom. It's like, every single one deserves an individual education plan, like you were saying. And individual attention. And I think that's where the system has been broken down over the years that they just group them all into one section. And they don't understand, there's different variants to autism and to behavioral issues in general.

Crystal (22:50):

I think it's so amazing what you're doing. And it's definitely clear to me. We talked briefly about our Big Grit docu-series. We found you at one of our customers through our grant applications that we were doing to support entrepreneurs struggling during COVID. And all I know, is when we read your story from the very beginning, we just felt so aligned to you. And I think what makes a gritty entrepreneur is a purpose greater than any regular business. It's one of those things that makes you withstand so many struggles and keep going no matter what. So what keeps you going when things get rough, when someone tells you no? What keeps you going and focused on your goals as an entrepreneur, and your goals for your purpose?

Valerie (23:38):

Well, my first purpose from 1994 on, until about 2005, was Chanel. Because I knew I'm successful with Chanel, and I had started advocating for other parents. And I was just so angered and enraged at the whole broken system. And it came very easy to me to learn to advocate. I picked up on it very quickly, and I was very passionate about it. But then what really just pushed it into that's my mission and my purpose in life, was when my first daughter Chanel, or Jessica. My first daughter, Jessica passed away in 2006. And that's when it became my mission in life. Because I made a vow to myself that if I can avoid having that happen to any other child, or having any other mom go through what I went through, that was my mission.

Valerie (24:40):

And because I believe that it was the system, again, that let my daughter, Jessica down. Because she had a service provider, a case carrier that oversaw her medication, taking her medication and going to the doctor. And they discontinued her services because she moved away from me and she moved up north. And so they said, "Oh, well we're going to discontinue her because she moved away." I'm like, "What do you mean? She still has the same needs. And she even has more needs now because I'm not close to her, so I can't help her." And she wanted to be independent, so she wanted to move up north. She was 28 years old. And so she went and then she stopped going to the doctor. She stopped taking her meds. And then she passed away in her sleep. And she wasn't ill.

Crystal (25:31):

I'm sorry.

Valerie (25:31):

We had no idea that this was going to happen. And so [crosstalk 00:25:36] not only did the system want to put a complete stop on my first daughter Chanel by wanting me to believe their bleak predictions, that what she would never do. Which she surpassed everyone's predictions. Then they also failed to keep their word with providing the services my oldest daughter needed. And she lost her life. I mean, nothing can get more worse than that. So then I knew, well, this is my purpose here.

Crystal (26:15):

How do you pick yourself up after something like that? I mean, that is gritty for sure. I can't even imagine being able to pick up from there and taking that cause on. I think it's so amazing. What keeps you going when you have... What helps you push through? What do you have in you? How can we bottle it and get it to others?

Valerie (26:34):

It's really honoring both my daughters and their lives, and how amazing they are. And I know how amazing these kids are. I know that they have such potential, they all have gifts and talents to offer the world. They're not second class citizens, they deserve equality. They deserve opportunities. They deserve an education. They deserve a life. And really that is what IDEA, the purpose of IDEA, the federal law, is to prepare these kids to leave high school with the skills they need to live a purposeful, independent, and productive life. Meaning, they are going to be able to go get a job, a gainful employment after they graduate, and live independently or go on to secondary education. But that's not what they do in special ed. That's not what they're doing. They're not doing that at all. So they're really violating federal law every single day, millions of times across the nation. Because there's over seven million kids on an IEP in America today.

Laura (27:41):

Unbelievable. And your purpose does not get more personal than that. And it's just amazing the drive that you have, and that you kept going, you didn't let anything stop you. I'm going to try not to cry here. But I just absolutely am inspired by you. And I just thank you for everything you're doing for all these families, and for your own children. And I wish the best to Chanel. And I'm just so sorry about what happened to Jessica. And I'm glad that that's what propelled you to work even harder, and that it didn't deter you or anything like that. I'm just in complete awe.

Crystal (28:30):

So, Valerie, what are the next goals that you have for your business, for your advocate program? What are the next big goals you're reaching for?

Valerie (28:40):

Okay. My business model was always representing and speaking on behalf of parents in these legal IEP meetings. To develop the special ed program to meet the needs of their child so they could reach their highest potential. So I would go to these meetings with parents and speak for them, and legally take the steps required to win the services that they need. And so, I say win, because they say no. They say no to everything. That's always their first response is a no. Okay? And then I take the next steps, and the next steps, and the next steps. And I will eventually get to the, yes. So what parents don't know is, when they get the no, they just go away and they never ask again. Because they said, "Well they said no." And I said, "No, you don't stop at no. That's just a formality on the way to getting to the yes."

Crystal (29:40):

Wow, that's awful.

Laura (29:41):

Like, don't take no for an answer the first time, just keep going back.

Crystal (29:45):

I love how you look at it, but it's awful that that's their go-to just to get it quickly off the table.

Valerie (29:49):

That's their go-to.

Laura (29:50):

[crosstalk 00:29:50] What have the steps been? So if one group says no, I mean, you mentioned that there was one scenario where they actually did a turnover of all the staff and they brought on people that were better advocates. What do you do in a situation where that's not the case?

Valerie (30:05):

Yeah. And it isn't the case. And in fact, that local school district that was my home before I moved to San Diego, they're right back to their same old shenanigans now. Because, of course, this is quite a while later, 15 years later. So now they're back. And most school districts are that way. Now, they're not as overt with their tactics, with their coercion tactics. They just do it in a different way now. Because you couldn't get away with that today, right? Here we are 2020, you can't get away with screaming at parents today. They just do it [crosstalk 00:30:38] in a really nice way. They just act like they're just so on your side, and they're here to help you. And, "Oh yes, yes, now here's what we're offering you. Now here you go, Mrs. Smith, sign your IEP." And they use misinformation, disinformation.

Valerie (30:54):

They misguide and mislead parents. They fail to give the full information, so parents are never fully informed. They have their little tricks. They delay, delay, delay, delay. They make parents fight and go back over and over and over again until finally parents are exhausted and give up. They have all their little tactics under their belt, and that's what they use. And I can pretty much predict when I go to an IEP meeting what tactics they're going to use, who are the corrupt ones and the deceitful ones, and who are the ones that want to help the mom. It's so obvious to me. But in that, as I started leveraging my business in 2016 to have a wider reach, and that's when I started working with Keap. And that's when I got a business coach, because I wanted to go from the brick and mortar one-on-one client, to a larger group.

Valerie (31:56):

Working with [crosstalk 00:31:58] big groups of parents, and coaching and teaching them to empower them so that they can do what I do, and I don't have to do one-on-one. So that's when I created my courses, and I have a monthly membership so that I can teach the parents how to do it. I tell them, "Look, I learned how to do it. You can learn how to do it." And then I took all my information and knowledge that I had, and I brought it down into seven steps. And so that's what I do today. And that's my goal today, is that I want to back off on the actual representing one-on-one because I want parents to do it for themselves.

Crystal (32:35):

Valerie. I have loved talking to you. I love what you're doing and your purpose. I'm sorry that you've had losses while following through with this. And I think it's a beautiful thing to have taken that and done something more for others. It honestly is very ... it's emotional to listen to. And in all the ways, sadness, happiness, awe of just being able to see how you've pushed through and made a purpose to help other people not experience what you've experienced. I'm just in total awe of you. And I'm so glad we got to document your business story and also the story of you and your purpose in life right now. I think it's really amazing. Where can people find you if they have any questions on this? Or are looking for courses, if they have someone they know or their own children suffering from just awful segregation or anything else that you've discussed today. Where can they find you?

Valerie (33:33):

My website is AdvocatesforAngels.com. And I'm also on Facebook, Advocates for Angels on Facebook. And I also have a private Facebook group, it's called Special Education Parent Empowerment Network. And that's a private group just for parents or others who work with children with special needs who are on the parents' side. And those are the people that are in that group.

Crystal (34:02):

That's awesome.

Laura (34:03):

That's awesome. You are a true inspiration, Valerie. Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today. It's been an honor.

Crystal (34:09):

If you want to check out Valerie's video and see more about her story, check out bit.ly/big-grit. So again, that's bit.ly/big-grit. And that's a wrap.

Speaker 1 (34:30):

Thanks for listening to Small Biz Buzz. Please take a second to subscribe to the show and leave a five-star rating, it helps keep the show going. And, if you need a hand with growing your small business, head over to keap.com that's K-E-A-P.com and get started. More business. Less work. That's Keap.

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