When her son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 1, Johana Maison didn’t let the reality of coping with a child with special needs overwhelm her. Instead, she founded “Help Free an Angel,” an organization that serves single parents of children with disabilities in the New Orleans area.
Maison, a native of Nicaragua, is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business and a minor in human resources at the Upper Iowa University New Orleans Center.
Given her first-hand experience, Maison realized that children with disabilities – as well as their parents and loved ones – are often an overlooked community. While adjusting to her son’s condition, she had the idea of forming a more cohesive community of support for these families. The organization’s name, Help Free an Angel, came about when she realized that by providing the right resources and tools to caretakers of children with special needs, she could help free the children from the limitations of their conditions.
Maison’s initial challenge was finding the right group of people to get the program off the ground. She found great allies among teacher and doctors – in fact, most of her organization’s board has medical background.
But Johana’s “A-Team” supporters are a little closer to home: her daughter Leilah Marie, 9, and Nala Jean, 8, are both very engaged with the organization.
The most rewarding aspect of launching Help Free an Angel has been the willingness of people to help carry out her mission in the New Orleans community, Maison says. By collaborating with her board members, she has helped children with special needs enhance their communication skills and enjoy specialized arts and programs.
Many of the Help Free an Angel programs have a distinct New Orleans twist. For instance, one man supports the programs by throwing mini parades for the children. He and his wife ride floats and distribute beads.
Maison is thrilled by the initial reaction to Help Free an Angel. “People do want to help,” she says.
The ultimate goal of Help Free an Angel is the designation of a building in the metro New Orleans area for parents of children with special needs to gather and share support. Furthermore, Maison is creating after-school and summer programs especially for children with disabilities, because parents who have commitments to jobs or other family members often find it difficult to locate care for them outside of school hours.
In October, Help Free an Angel held its inaugural fundraiser, “Angels of Hope,” drawing many influential people from the New Orleans area to support the nonprofit organization.
Individual volunteers are always welcome to assist Help Free an Angel, and businesses and organizations are invited to share their resources, such as donating building space for an afternoon program. For more information, go to HelpFreeAnAngel.org.