SILOAM SPRINGS -- Raising children can be difficult. When a child has special needs the difficulties are increased. Stephanie Cooley has taken her struggles with raising a special needs child and channeled them to help other parents who have children with special needs.
Cooley's son Zyler, 13, was born with autism, she said. At first, Cooley was unaware that her son might have autism. Cooley noticed he was very quiet and didn't talk much.
"So I had been around a lot of kids, and I knew there was something that was just a little bit different about him than a typical child," Cooley said.
When she took him to doctor's appointments for routine ailments she would bring this up and the doctors would tell Cooley her son was just not ready to talk or he was just shy.
Cooley said she mainly grew up in Huntsville. Her family moved around a lot, but Cooley would always find herself back in Huntsville, she said. Cooley said she grew up poor and was a recipient of the Kiwanis Christmas program where kids are given $100 and taken Christmas shopping with a Kiwanis member.
Remembering the kindness shown by the Kiwanians, Cooley would later join the Kiwanis Club as an adult and has helped with the same Christmas program she was a recipient of as a child, she said.
At the age of 21, Cooley moved away to Texas and got married. She lived in the Killeen, Midland and Wichita Falls, Texas, area, Cooley said. Eventually Cooley wanted to move back to Arkansas.
While living in the Wichita Falls area, Cooley found out what was different about her soon when he was 4 years old, she said. Cooley was at an event for a church camp in the neighboring town of Iowa Park with Zyler, and someone from the Iowa Park School District, who was a friend of one of Cooley's friends, talked to Zyler and asked Cooley if he had ever been evaluated for autism. Cooley said no, and the school worker told her to bring him by the school.
When they went to the school, Cooley was told by school officials they were pretty sure he had autism and to get a referral from her primary care physician to the Fort Worth Child Study Center.
Cooley took him there for a day of testing, she said. Zyler was officially diagnosed with autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder with significant speech delay disorder. At that point Cooley felt she had an answer.
Cooley was advised to enroll her son in prekindergarten and get him into special education to give him a little more structure, she said. During her first meeting, Cooley said she was seated at a long table with the principal, special education teacher, a regular classroom teacher and several therapists, all of which overwhelmed Cooley.
"I remember I was trying to take in everything they were saying, but at the same time I was not understanding what they were saying, so that's when I was like, 'I hate this feeling,'" Cooley said. "They're speaking in all of these big terms that I don't understand, and that's when I wanted to help families that were in that same situation."
Raising a special needs child
Raising a special needs child was difficult because autism looks different in each individual, Cooley said. Some days are easier than others, but Cooley felt most days are hard days, she said. Presently, Cooley and her son are also dealing with puberty along with autism, which Cooley describes as a rough combination.
When her son is happy he is high-fiving people and jumping up and down, and when he is sad he will break down, crying over what others would consider nothing but is something to Zyler, Cooley said.
He will talk about how his dog ran away 10 years ago or how his grandmother passed away, Cooley said. She went on to say people would find it heartbreaking even if they don't know what Zyler is talking about.
"So it is very hard, and you have pretty much all those emotions amplified, and then you bring puberty into the mix -- everything is hard," Cooley said.
Cooley also has a younger son, Zane, whom she was worried about for a while, but she soon realized Zane was just emulating his brother's actions, she said.
Helping other families
Since Zyler had a significant speech delay, Cooley had gone to college to study speech therapy for young children and received her bachelor's degree in Communicative Disorders, graduating suma cum laude from Eastern New Mexico University, she said.
When she moved back from Texas, in spring of 2017, she had planned to go to the University of Arkansas to finish her master's degree program in Speech Therapy; however, the deadline for the program had passed by the time she moved back, Cooley said.
She wasn't sure what to do, but Cooley found the Elizabeth Richardson Center (ERC), which was looking for a service coordinator -- similar to a case manager -- in September 2017 for their Fayetteville child development center, she said.
During the eight months she worked as a service coordinator, Cooley also helped with the center's marketing needs because the marketing director had a lot on his plate, she said. She participated in children's events like Autism Involves Me and worked events with the Fayetteville Macaroni Kid community.
Macaroni Kid communities are managed by a local mom or dad who publishes weekly hyper-local e-newsletters and websites featuring events, activities, products and places for children and families, according to fayetteville.macaronikid.com .
Over time, Cooley transitioned to be an interim Certified Special Education Teacher in Siloam Springs, she said. The position placed her over three classrooms. Since she was only there for a few months, Cooley missed marketing ERC at the Dogwood Festival.
From there, Cooley spent two years as the director of the Huntsville center, she said. In 2020, she wanted to move back to Siloam Springs because she felt Zyler was doing better in that school system.
Cooley told her superiors she was passionate about ERC but her child came first, she said. ERC did not want to lose Cooley, so they split the marketing director's position and placed her over the children's department while the other marketing director was over the adult department.
She accepted the position and, within two weeks, the other marketing director put in his notice and Cooley took over both departments, she said.
As marketing director, Cooley helped get ERC involved with Kids Day at the Farmers Market, she said.
ERC CEO Barbara Ludwig, who has known Cooley since 2018, said that what made them promote Cooley to her current position were the relationships Cooley formed in Huntsville.
Ludwig describes Cooley as high energy, creative and tenacious. Cooley routinely impresses Ludwig with the excitement she has for both the people ERC serves as well as ERC in general.
"She embraces the concept of helping those with disabilities achieve the best they can," Ludwig said.
Siloam Springs Chamber President and CEO Arthur Hulbert, who performs therapy services for ERC, also describes Cooley as a very giving and caring person who has a heart for people with special needs.
Even with all of the roles Cooley has served in, what she still finds most rewarding is helping families navigate the waters of getting the help their children need, she said.
"I feel like the most rewarding thing is to help families realize it's going to be OK," Cooley said. "Things are going to be a little rough for a little bit, and you're going to have all this information you are going to have to take in, but at the end of the day it's your child, and your child is going to be OK."
She wants people to know ERC can help, but if it's not ERC there are other places, and Cooley said she always tries to make sure people know that. Cooley wants people to know that there are resources out there whether it is a preschool, therapy or just resources for everyday things at their home.
"That's my biggest thing because I felt like I was on an island as a parent, and so if I can help other families not feel like they are on an island, then I feel like that's the most rewarding part," Cooley said.
Passion for community
Cooley's passion extends not only to children with special needs and their parents, but also to the community she lives in.
"I want to make the community the best that it can be because I want my children to be proud of the place they are growing up in," Cooley said.
While Cooley was working in Huntsville, she began volunteering for the local chapter of the Kiwanis Club, she said.
At the Kiwanis Club, Cooley was able to pay the kindness she was shown as a child forward by participating in the Christmas shopping event as well as Kiwanis' pancake breakfast, Kids Night and every activity she could get her hands on, she said.
"Stephanie is one of the most giving and caring individuals that I know," said Amy Olic, a friend of Cooley's who served with her at the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis. "She donates her time, her talent and her energy to everything."
Olic has known Cooley three or four years and said some of her favorite moments occurred during the Kiwanis' Christmas shopping program. Olic described Cooley's interaction with the children Kiwanis helps as magical.
Cooley also helped set up the auction to raise funds for the Christmas shopping event, Olic said. Cooley and Olic also took part in another fundraiser where 10 Kiwanis members get together annually to make blankets and quilts and take them to Children's Hospital, Olic said.
On Cooley's move to Siloam Springs, Olic said she expects Cooley to be as involved with the community as she was in Huntsville.
"I think whatever community Stephanie is in she is going to excel," Olic said. "She's going to leave great footprints wherever she's at."
When Cooley arrived in Siloam Springs in mid-2020, she settled into the city and then began volunteering with the Siloam Springs Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis Club, she said. Cooley began by participating in a ribbon cutting, then coming in early for one of the chamber's First Friday Coffee the next day.
Cooley also volunteered for the 2021 Dogwood Festival at the chamber booth and dressed up as a duck for the duck race where she would dance with the children and make them smile, Hulbert said. Cooley also serves as a chamber ambassador, participating in ribbon cuttings and other events as needed.
Recently Cooley was appointed to the board for the Siloam Springs Kiwanis Club and was approved to be a member of the Heritage League.
"I was talking to a friend and got involved in the community, and she told me about the Heritage League," Cooley said.
Cooley does not know what her responsibilities will be on the Kiwanis board and the Heritage League yet but is eager to find out, she said.
Outside of ERC
Along with her job as marketing director of ERC, Cooley also has helped Re-Invent Fitness, a new health club located in downtown Siloam Springs, with their social media needs, she said.
Kevin Childers, one of the owners of Re-Invent Fitness, said he met her as her personal trainer and she became a very close friend.
"She is definitely one of the most caring people I've met," Childers said.
Cooley recently completed her first six-week boot camp, and Childers said Cooley was instrumental in the grand opening of Re-Invent Fitness and Girls Night Out on June 10.
"I would say my life has taken a turn for the better meeting Stephanie," Childers said. "She definitely brings that to people's lives."
Presently, Cooley lives with her two boys, she said. Cooley said she does not have any hobbies other than working out, although when she is bored at home she will turn on an episode of "Doctor Who."
Looking to the future
Cooley said she reached many of her goals because she wanted to be marketing director.
"That was my goal, and it took a little bit to get there, but I got there," Cooley said.
Cooley has expressed her love for Siloam Springs and how everyone pulls together when they need to. Cooley said Siloam Springs is big enough that it has things to do but small enough where everybody still helps everybody.
"I am so proud to be part of the community, and that's why I want to give back as much as I can and make a difference here because this is where I feel I should be," Cooley said.