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Conversations with the Inspiring Kristi Vannatta

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kristi Vannatta.

Kristi, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
Growing up in South Florida in the 1970’s and 80’s felt magical. I was raised in a brand spanking new community in Broward County that advertised in Columbia and Venezuela. Families who were nothing like mine swooped in to purchase summer homes, and the friendships I forged molded me into the person I am today. Many of my playmates spoke little English, and I loved that! And man were they a fun crew. We displayed both a fascination and patience for one another as we learned to communicate, seemingly overnight. I felt special. Nobody could guess the melting pot South Florida would become, but needless to say thanks to my rich adventures with the finest of people, I was more than prepared for it.

I always dreamed I’d become a teacher, and proving a quick study of the Spanish language fueled my idea learning must lead to extraordinary experiences. I wanted to give that to kids. Funny, I enrolled in Florida International University completely unaware my classmates would be exactly like the kids I’d grown up with. Hello, it was Miami after all! This chica was in heaven.

I feel lucky, I was able to teach in Miami Dade Public Schools in the days before standardized testing became this state’s laser focus. I could teach whatever novels I chose, and if something didn’t work I would just go back to the drawing board. Creativity is crucial, and you know you’re doing something right when the lower achieving students beg you to read from Dante’s Inferno. Again and again.

The high school I taught in boasted the most clever, adorable librarian the county had ever seen. I wanted to be her. I also craved to dash the stereotype of the “library lady” and although I have been known to store my pencil behind my ear, together we proved this instructional role vital to student success. Girl (and lip gloss) power reigned.

Has it been a smooth road?
Anyone who thinks to go into education is all about coming home early and having summers free is, well, not the teacher I want. The job is as tough as they come, and I marvel in the lengths I took to keep students engaged. The juggling act continued as I pursued my Master’s Degree in Information Science. I had no idea at the time how constantly reaching for that brass ring-o-balance would prepare me for motherhood.

Something went wrong with my first child. Looking back, J.R. must have been born during a time doctors thought it more necessary to save parents’ feelings than to diagnose obvious developmental issues. My husband and I saw specialist after specialist who reacted to us like a car salesman might, suggesting he could “make the numbers (scores) work in our favor.” If I appeared upset, he’d skew the results, assuring us J.R. had few issues. I left every appointment relieved, yet conflicted. My husband knew better.

Through insurance company denials, doctors’ sighs at my endless questions, hundreds and hundreds of hours of traditional therapies, a few not-so-traditional treatments, special schools, fear of bankruptcy, and gallons of tears, we are still attempting to navigate the world of autism. Managing my son’s care has become my full-time job.

Though nothing could have prepared me for this role, I realized I had already completed the “grunt” work required to stay sane; I was an educator, a researcher, and a lover of communication. I could do this, and God help me I would raise my unique kiddo with a smile on my face. I’d advise any mom in my similar shoes to remember her strengths, ask for help, and try to somehow laugh every day. Even if it’s at yourself.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into Puzzle Peace Now story. Tell us more about the business.
I do funny. Fortunately for me, I grew up in a home where we laughed off the tougher issues. My parents are hysterical and their genes have saved me. I began writing about my experiences with J.R., and I quickly gravitated to a lighter tone. It was just so natural. Could my truth actually be funnier than anyone else’s fiction? You bet.

I don’t have enough space to enumerate the depressing aspects of autism, some obvious to the layperson, others not- like, what happens when I die? Why reflect on heartbreak when I can focus on the good stuff? Like potty humor? I’ve got a pile of material on that topic, ha!

At the end of the day, I specialize in not wanting another family stumbles through the circles of hell my husband and I had to. And it’s hard to evoke a belly laugh out of someone struggling to pay the bills. For this reason, I started to Puzzle Peace Now, a non-profit aiming to help South Florida families with the financial burden of autism and other special needs diagnoses. My focus is on providing low-cost summer camp experiences. Just as I needed to play with mis chamos todo el verano in order to keep my gringa accent at bay, kids with autism need a constant engagement to stay on track. Fun just may prove therapeutic too.

I am most proud of the time I put in, time that is the enemy to parents like me. I do insist on inserting my personality stamp. There’s just no other way for me. Not a week went by when a student wouldn’t say “you’re not a just librarian, you’re a lipstick librarian!” I didn’t require the “required” written research paper from everyone. Some students acted them out. My “test” on The Count of Monte Cristo? Create your own board game based on the events of the novel, after playing board games all week for “practice,” of course. Chutes and Ladders, anyone?

My lasting endeavor will be no different. Puzzle Peace Now is all about putting the hilarity in charity. Hitting people up for money is a tough business so I am constantly looking for ways to get attention. Our annual Move Over Autism, for example, is a “DIY” 5K. You can participate from any place, on your own time, and on your own terms. Oh, and you don’t even have to run. As long as you can prove you moved at least one muscle, you earn a pretty fancy race medal. Just ask the group of girls who this past year followed a flock of flamingos to reach their goal. Flocking awesome.

Finally, I think people like that the money I raise stays local. I make a huge deal out of my donors and go the extra mile to show them exactly where their hard earned money goes.

Who do you look up to? How have they inspired you?
I fan on every woman, no kidding. I just finished reading the incredible memoir Educated, by Tara Westover. Amongst the many moments of clarity she experiences reflecting upon her difficult life, this self-taught scholar is asked to reply to the question “Who writes history?” If you are familiar with the story, you know as she concludes “I do,” a seemingly impossible breakthrough ensues.

Any woman who can overcome personal hardships and learn to thrive on her own terms inspires. It’s another thing to understand the influence you have on others and history itself. Will I write the great American novel? No. However, I will remind my children every day how much I cherish the wit and wisdom they bring to this world. In that one gesture, I am influencing history. Who knew?

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Image Credit:

Allyson Fortney

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