Lisa Wiederlight is a hard working Mom and the Executive Director of SafeMinds, a national, 501 (c)3
nonprofit whose mission is to end the autism epidemic by promoting environmental research and effective treatments. Lisa is also the mastermind behind “Fashion Rocks Autism”, a fall season event that raises money and awareness for Autism research and support to families affected by the condition.
The energetic and driven 40’something New York City native has lived in the Baltimore region since 2007. On any given day you will find her juggling appointments and specialists related to her son’s special needs, pounding the halls of Capitol Hill, lobbying for public safety training funding; or in back to back meetings with donors, and community stakeholders. If it is an evening, she’s either home with her son as a priority, or if needed, out networking and making things happen. Where ever she may be, you’ll no doubt hear an inspiring story about Josh and the progress he is making because his day to day experience with the disorder is part of the energy that drives her.
In April, National Autism Awareness Month, we made a point to catch up with Lisa on a rare “day off”. As Lisa likes to joke “Mom’s never really get the day off, do they?” and used the opportunity to learn more about her life, the reality of dealing with an autistic child when a single parent, and why she’s so passionate about helping others related to the disorder. Read on…
Was this your first career, or were you in another field in a past or past lives? If so, can you tell us a little bit about that?
This was definitely not my first career. After earning my Masters in Public Policy at the University of Maryland College Park, I worked for the Maryland State Police Bureau of Drug Enforcement as a policy aide to the bureau chief. That led to working with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, in the Clinton Administration. After leaving the Office, I worked as a consultant for various law enforcement organizations and vendors, and also worked for the National Association of Home Builders Research Center as a media relations professional. I’ve always liked taking complex problems, and making them easy for anyone to understand, so that they can take action. I have given thought to working in an international public affairs consulting firm, but my life has been changed by my son’s autism and epilepsy diagnoses. Luckily, I now have some flexibility mid-career to do what I need to do to support my family and follow my passion.
What prompted you to consider working for a non-profit?
My parents instilled in me the importance of leaving the world a better place than when you came into it. I have personally experienced the challenges and rewards of raising a child with autism, and I am excited to use my skills and experience to affect change in the autism community.
If you had to describe it in one short paragraph – what would you want people to know about Safe Minds and the work they/you do?
SafeMinds has evolved in a very short amount of time. We are very broadly considering environmental factors in the growth of autism as the fastest growing developmental disability. We’ve gone from 1 in 2,000 before the 1980s to 1 in 68 nationally, and 1 in 55 in Maryland. SafeMinds is focused on helping people with autism live safer, healthier, more independent lives by addressing the potentially-deadly commonly co-occurring conditions with autism, such as gastrointestinal disease, seizure disorders, wandering behaviors, and suicide. We’re going to make a difference, and we’re looking for more change-makers to join us on committees, and on our board.
What made you decide to work in the field of the autism community?
Admittedly, because I live with a teen-ager with autism, at first I was concerned about taking my private life and struggles into my professional life. Years ago, I remember asking my mother “why” she thought God gave me a child with autism? I always thought I had no patience, and an education that was, (so I thought), different than what I would need to care for his needs. She had told me, which is something I hold onto, “God gave you a child with autism so that you could speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.” Sometimes, things that seem bigger than us are right in our reach, we just have to take that step forward. And here I am.
What are some of people’s biggest misconceptions about autism?
Autism is a spectrum disorder. This means that some people are very affected by it, and some are only slightly affected. Many are in the middle. Many people don’t know this, and still classify people with autism as a person who is a savant. While everyone has gifts, people with moderate to severe autism have many challenges. SafeMinds is focused on helping people who are sick, get better. We’re looking for treatments and convening consortia with experts nationwide to address these issues. The Federal government’s response thus far has been an abysmal failure and has ignored the pleas of parents like myself for decades. We now constitute a pretty big voting block, so things are about to get interesting!
Who does your non –profit service directly, or indirectly?
We are focused on identifying the environmental triggers for autism, and on addressing and treating the commonly occurring conditions with autism. We service people with autism, and those who care for them, across the country as advocates and proponents of focused research, effective policy change, and measurable outcomes related to improved safety, health, and independence.
What is the most intimidating part of job?
There’s so much that needs to be done! We are a relatively small organization, and the problems the autism community faces are so large. We’ve joined with other autism organizations to leverage resources, and have really made a difference on issues such as autism and wandering.
You are the working Mom of a special needs child, what can you share about that?
It’s a full-time job. As in, all day long and beyond – 24hrs. That said, it’s the most rewarding job I could imagine. While I wish, for his sake, that he were healthier, he is, regardless of his condition, a smart, funny, and happy young man. What is most special about my situation is that everyday I get up and see his face, and because of that, I’m ready to work another day. Not only so that I can care for him as a mother, but also so that I can help make the world a better place for him, and others with autism, in the future. There’s a lot we’ve got to build.
What are your biggest frustrations when it comes to work/life and caring for your child balance?
I don’t think that there is work/life/family balance. There is definitely a shortage of appropriate and affordable child care for parents raising children with autism. This is probably my biggest frustration. Parenting a child with autism can be very isolating, expensive, and can affect career advancement. Research has also shown that mothers of children with autism have the same amount of stress as combat soldiers—seriously—so getting rest and being able to care for yourself is vital.
What are your thoughts about effectively leading a non-profit organization?
It takes a lot of time, energy, and passion to lead a nonprofit organization. Not only is an executive director responsible for managing staff, the organization’s work, and administrative details, but she’s also accountable to the organization’s board of directors. This means keeping board members abreast of the organizations’ activities and growth, holding board members accountable for their responsibilities, and growing the board, too. You really need to know how to motivate people.
What can you share as advice for successfully building a board?
I think the key is finding people who have the time and resources for board membership. There are many people who may have a passion for the organization’s mission, but are they able to follow-through and actively participate in supporting the organization’s activities? Board members need to be the organization’s cheerleaders, fundraisers, and lead generators.
What is the best business advice you’ve ever gotten and why?
The best business advice is the same best advice I’ve gotten in my personal life. It’s just to keep going. Everyone makes mistakes, and worrying about them just stifles progress. If you rest too much on a success, you’ll stop your forward motion. You’ve just got to learn from mistakes, smile at any success, and keep moving forward.
How do you measure success – in your business and in life?
In my business life, I measure success on my level of satisfaction with progress. Are we reaching measurable goals? What needs to be changed, and is this something that can be changed? In life in general, I base everything on how I feel at the end of the day. Can I look myself in the mirror and be satisfied that I have done my best today? Can I look forward to the morning’s planning session with hope and enthusiasm? What could I have done differently to achieve even greater effectiveness?
Where and how do you network?
I network everywhere. I try to eat lunch outside of the office, and have coffee outside of the office, to meet new people. Every interaction is an opportunity. I attend many fundraisers and parties associated with the fashion industry here, since SafeMinds has “Fashion Rocks Autism” as its main fundraiser. I also try to support the activities hosted by those who support Fashion Rocks Autism.
What is your biggest challenge as an employee?
My biggest challenge is to manage my workload. There is so much to do, and we are a small but growing organization.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Hahaha….I’m a single mom, so I work on the house, or cook for my son’s special diet, since he can’t have processed foods of any kind. I try to exercise on a regular basis, catch up with friends on Facebook or LinkedIn, and read a lot about business and sales to keep me motivated and to increase my knowledge base. I love learning new things.
What are four things you love about the Greater Baltimore region?
- I love the Ravens. Really, it’s not just about football. They are the most community-minded sports team I know of—and I’ve lived in a few metropolitan areas. They earn their fans’ loyalty on and off the field.
- The diversity of culture. You can find Indian food, Italian food, Nepalese food, Korean food, Kosher food, Japanese food, and American hamburgers all within a short drive of anywhere.
- The area, the water, hiking trails, and being so close to DC, yet not in the DC area, where things are less affordable. When you’re an autism parent, affordability is important.
- The connection in the business community. It’s a relatively small city, and business leaders in the community, such as Ella Pritsker, Mike DiMayo, Lana Rae, Christopher Schafer, and Helga Surratt have been deeply involved in SafeMinds’ annual fundraiser, Fashion Rocks Autism, which has touched my heart.
What do you do when you get discouraged?
I look to my mentors, those who I know personally, and those I follow on social media and who I read on a regular basis. I follow Grant Cardone and Keith Harrington regularly on social media. I take a few deep breaths, and tell myself to keep going, or nothing will change. I also talk with a few of my board members, who have been in this autism life longer than I have, and who have great perspective on certain issues that frustrate me about the way our country currently addresses (or doesn’t address) the epidemic of autism. Sometimes, I just listen to music.
What causes are important to you and if applicable how do you give back?
Other than autism advocacy, I’m drawn to supporting the well-being of gray wolves in the wild. Wolves are beautiful, family-oriented animals that thrive in a structured environment, demand pack loyalty, and operate as a team to survive. They are very misunderstood historically, and are often persecuted and hunted cruelly, i.e., chased down by airplanes until they drop of exhaustion, and shot point blank. Their killing disrupts the pack order that is so necessary to the pack’s survival, and also affects the balance of the ecosystem of which wolves are such a vital part. If I could, I would write grants to support wolf sanctuaries in more rural states, but I’ve got to improve the world for people with autism. All I do now for this cause is educate my friends and supporters on Facebook about the wolves’ plight.
About Lisa Weiderlight
Lisa joined the national 501(C) 3 nonprofit SafeMinds in Spring 2015. She is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the organization, and for leading activities that will help the organization achieve its mission of ending the autism epidemic by promoting environmental research and effective treatments. Earlier in her career, she was a partner in a real estate investment company, and worked as a public affairs specialist for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, traveling the country with the director. She has also served as program manager for the University of Maryland Center for Safe Solutions Technical Assistance with Grants Initiative. Lisa co-founded the Autism-Asperger Association of Calvert County, and has also authored a book on her autism journey, “One of the 88: A Guidebook for Parents of Children with Autism and Those Who Love Them.” She graduated magna cum laude as a Dean’s Scholar from the University of Maryland College Park, with a B.A. in government and politics, and earned her master of public policy degree from the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. To find out more about SafeMinds and how you can help visit www.safeminds.org, or call (202) 780-9821. You can find out more about Lisa on LinkedIn, and save the date for Fashion Rocks Autism on November 13, 2017!