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Meet Trailblazer Areva Martin

Today we’d like to introduce you to Areva Martin.

So, before we jump into specific questions about what you do, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
My journey as an advocate began with my son Marty’s diagnosis at the age of two. Like so many mothers, I was absolutely devastated by the diagnosis. I was frustrated and confused. There was no centralized source of consistent information and even my pediatrician had more questions than answers. I couldn’t say the word autism without weeping. It took me months to be able to say the word autism and to begin the process of seeking out medical and educational services.

But gradually, the strong lessons my grandmother taught me kicked in. I knew without a doubt that, if grandma were faced with this challenge, she would rise to the occasion and face it head on. “You’ve been assigned this mountain to show others that it can be moved,” she’d say.

Remembering her strength, I summoned my own. Knowing that I had to be at my strongest when I felt the weakest, I did what she would do. I started reading. I took classes, talked to parents and doctors and healthcare workers—anyone who would share information with me. I didn’t plan to be an autism advocate. You could say advocacy found me.

If it came to kids with autism, like my beloved son, I found I had a passion for helping. When I’d done as much as I could on my own, it seemed quite natural to start a nonprofit.

The Special Needs Network now provides services to over 50,000 kids and families in LA County and has touched the lives of millions of kids and families throughout California.

As a Harvard-trained civil rights attorney, I have been able to use my platform in the media to help raise awareness of autism and to raise millions of dollars for Special Needs Network. As a legal analyst on CNN and HLN and a host of daytime talk shows from Face the Truth to the Doctors, I take advantage of every opportunity to educate, inform and empower audiences about incredible talents of individuals with special needs and to continue to push for much needed government and private funding and investments in disenfranchised communities.

My Humble beginnings:

I grew up poor in a housing project in North St. Louis, Missouri with my paraplegic grandmother and Godmother. Both of these amazing women taught me invaluable lessons about life, resiliency and perseverance. In my TEDx Talk, I share how my brother and I had to stand in line for government-sponsored food because our grandmother’s disability check couldn’t be stretched far enough to put food on our table without assistance. It was the lessons I learned in my childhood that has sustained me throughout my life. Being the first person in my family to graduate college, I take mentoring very seriously. I live by the mantra, you may be the first, but it ain’t no glory in being the only. If you achieve any level of success, you have an obligation to send the ladder back down to help others rise up.

Tell me more about your comprehensive care center and your goals in providing this type of option to low-income families?

On April 29, 2019, Special Needs Network broke grounds on the Center for Autism and And Developmental Center (CAAD). This comprehensive center will be the first of its kind in the state of California. In conjunction with our partner, St. John Well Child and Family Center, CAAD will provide a health and wellness home for thousands of kids on the spectrum and their families. The center will provide medical and dental services; autism therapies including ABA therapy, speech and occupational therapy; job training; family counseling, and wellness classes. It will house a free legal clinic, parent center, tech, and media center, outdoor sports courts, teen center, therapeutic gym and like skills kitchen.

The center will occupy the second floor of the 55,000 square foot, three-story MLK Family and Wellness Center on the campus of the Martin Luther King Hospital Campus in the heart of the Watts/Willowbrook and Compton community.

The center is slated to open in late summer 2020. It will provide services to over 5,000 children a year and thousands of their family members.

SNN will also partner with local universities including Charles R. Drew University and other medical schools to provide training opportunities for clinicians and other health care professionals and to conduct cutting edge research.

SNN hopes that this center will become a model that can be replicated in other parts of the state and country.

What’s you unique about your program model? In particular how it caters to parents?

SNN is unique because it’s more than an autism organization; it’s morphed into a social justice organization focused on addressing issues of disparities in healthcare, education and economic inequalities for marginalized populations. SNN recognizes that in order to effectively serve children or adults with autism, you must support and strengthen their parents and family unit. Ninety percent of the demographic that we serve are African American, Latino, Asia or other minorities. And that same percentage is low too low/moderate income with many living below the poverty line as indicated by state and national indicators.

All of our programs are free thereby any economic barriers that might prevent parents from participating. We have a Parent Advisory Council that provides critical information to our staff and that helps us ensure that we are meeting the needs identified by our parents. Our parents are also central to all of our programming. Parents serve as moderators, speakers, facilitators and key partners. We also provide free childcare, transportation, food and other support that makes it easier for parents to participate in our programs.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
No one has reached any level of success without facing obstacles. I started a business at 26 years old without any experience in business or formal business training. Although I found it easy to develop business for my law firm, the managing staff was incredibly difficult. I spent a lot of time trying to get my staff to like me, rather than respect me. I had a massive turnover in my early practice years. I also had a rough patch where I lost a major client and had to lay off close to half of my staff. I had the challenge of rebuilding and trying to regain my practice. Close in time to this, my son was diagnosed with autism and my mother was dying from a chronic illness. It was a very challenging time for me. I had to reflect on what was important and how to move forward. I was fortunate to have a strong support base and I was able to take a leave from my practice to reassess my career and to work on a book about special needs. I remade my career with a focus on media and public speaking. This transition has been filled with many twists and turns. After my second book, The Everyday Advocate did not sell as well as the publishers had hoped, I was told I would never be able to get another major book publishing deal. That was crushing to me. But it also strengthened my resolve to write a third book. That book–Make It Rain How to Use the Media to Revolutionize Your Brand and Business was published with one of the world’s largest publishers, Hachett Group and is a national bestseller. From jobs I didn’t get, from shows I pitched which were rejected, and bad business deals, nothing in this world worth having is easy. I have learned to celebrate the successes and learn from failures. I live by the mantra that whatever may be written about me, nowhere in the text will it say I gave up. I encourage younger women to remember to be patient, even miracles take time. Be kind and gentle with yourself and don’t let others set time limits on your goals. You set them and you do the work to make them happen. And never compare your chapter to someone else’s book!


So much of the media coverage is focused on the challenges facing women today, but what about the opportunities? Do you feel there are any opportunities that women are particularly well-positioned for?
Yes, a woman has tremendous opportunities as entrepreneurs. The number of women-owned businesses grew by more than 8 percent from 1977 to 2017–a rate that’s 1.5 times the national average. Women now own over 30 percent of all businesses in the US. These businesses have added more than 340,000 jobs to the economy. These are incredible statistics and establish that there are tremendous opportunities for women to be business owners. That being said, women still face significant challenges in obtaining financing and other support needed to launch. In 2017, women-led companies received only two percent of the venture capital injected into startup companies in start contrast to companies ran by men which received 70 percent of the $85 billion that VCs invested.

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Image Credit:
Russell Baer

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