Bonner Springs — For Leia Holley, being a good mother means always putting your children first.
Through her two sons, however, Holley has also learned that it’s equally important to take care of yourself.
“It’s taken me a long time to not let myself just deteriorate physically and emotionally and get drained and not want to sleep (for) a week,” Holley said.
Holley’s statement reveals the struggles she has undergone as the mother of 18-year-old JP, who has visual dyslexia, and 17-year-old Sean, who suffers from severe autism.
Although there have been some tough times, Holley says bringing up her children in a supportive community has been wildly rewarding.
Holley and her family moved to Bonner Springs 11 years ago from Fort Riley, where her husband was stationed, thinking a small community where the brothers could attend school together would benefit them both. The move, she said, paid off in spades.
When Sean was in eighth grade, Holley said, she began getting pressure from the special education cooperative in Kansas City, Kan., to send Sean there instead of a traditional high school.
“They were trying to push us that way, (but) with the support of the community, with the school and everybody here, it didn’t happen,” Holley said.
JP has largely overcome his dyslexia and was eventually able to read at a gifted level. He is now a freshman at Kansas State University and “loving every minute of it,” Holley said. Though Sean has significant disabilities in the areas of communication, cognition and behavior, he is completing his junior year at Bonner Springs High School.
“You watch the community grow around him, whether it’s at school or outside the school, and the compassion. … It’s like he’s their brother,” Holley said. “Sean is pretty much leading the way in Bonner because he’s the first kid with significant disabilities … to be still at the high school.”
When Sean received an autism diagnosis at age 2, Holley said, his doctor told Holley to place the boy in an institution. The doctor, Holley said, was not the first one she “told off.”
“My family, when I grew up, it’s taking care of family; it’s family first,” she said. “And you don’t put someone away just because they learn different. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s always been full of some amazing adventures too.”
One of those adventures includes one that Holley has had all to herself, landing her “dream job” 10 years ago at Families Together Inc., an organization that supports families who have children with disabilities. Using her own example, Holley gives presentations on issues related to special education.
“My biggest thing is I get to share our stories, funny stories or stories of success, because it can be very depressing when you think you’re alone,” Holley said.
Once Sean graduates next year, Holley plans to get him set up with his own business, designed to fit his special needs.
She says her focus is always on looking forward, not backward, and seeing Sean for exactly who he is — a son she says she “wouldn’t change for the world.”
“Sean has given us so many gifts, even taught me how to help his brother with his learning disability,” Holley said. “He’s taught us how to slow down and look at the world from a different perspective and listen to everything around. … As long as he continues to grow, I wouldn’t change him. I’m happy with him being who he is.”