In an age where directions and maps appear instantly on your phone it seems impossible to ever feel lost. Not so for parents with children who have disabilities. For them feeling lost is part of the process. Navigating the twisting, turning maze of Special Education services and parenting issues is a daunting task that requires powerful tools that can light the way. In the world of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) the tools you need are advocacy and information.

Luckily for residents of Maryland, they have Parent’s Place. Think of it as a sort of Home Depot for education, support, and information for parents of children with disabilities and special health care needs.  Everything you need to become your own advocate for your child is there.

We sat down with Josie Thomas, co-founder of the Parents’ Place of Maryland and Executive Director since 1997, to learn what makes Parent’s Place such a unique and important resource for parents struggling with the responsibility of raising a child with special needs.

Josie’s interests are wide-ranging, aside from being a life long jazz fan and devoted grandmother, Josie is vice chair of the Maryland State Rehabilitation Council and author of a variety of publications on topics related to parent professional partnerships and family-centered care. Nonetheless, her passion for Parent’s Place – where she has the opportunity to help parents learn advocacy – has laser focus.

“What makes us special?” Josie answers in a heart beat. “Not only are we here to help families but we are run by families. Nearly every member of the staff is a parent of a child with disabilities. We know what parents are struggling with.” As Josie explains, having so many members of the Parent’s Place team filled with first hand experience of the pain, the process, the possibilities and the successes of parenting a child with disabilities, has created a culture of passion and commitment that is an essential part of the program’s mission and training process.

“We have a rigorous training process for staff,” Josie explains. “But it doesn’t end there. We are always learning.” Parent’s Place understands the power of tapping into talented people. “We have over 397 professional partnerships to help keep us informed.”

Information overload is a common problem for parents. Sorting through the endless facts and data can be overwhelming, which is why Parent’s Place focuses on information that is current, relevant and useful. “We want parents not only to become more knowledgeable about how to work with the schools, but also to be confident that they can advocate and address criticals need related to their child’s education.

This passion for advocacy and knowledge organically infuses all the deeply needed work that Parent’s Place is doing on a day-to-day basis. One of their most successful programs is the Parent Training Program, a highly sought after 40 hour course that trains parents to become special education advocates and leaders. People who complete the program master the ins and outs of the EP process. They finish knowing – among other things – essential skills like writing effective IEP goals and understanding the complexities of discipline problems.

The Parent Training Program is dynamic – parents make a commitment to help other parents once they graduate. According to Josie, “94% go on to teach other parents, 35% conduct workshops and 75% do policy work.

“As it sounded like such a committed and people-centric place to work, we wondered what Josie looks for in her staff. “We want level headed people with a good personality. People who are passionate about this job. They need to have a burning desire to help others.”