Donna Spiegel sits on a wooden chair in a Covington classroom chatting with 9- and 10-year-olds Lourdes and Addy about schoolwork, holiday parties, and boyfriends. Roman, who’s 13, is home sick today, but Amelia, 4 years old and a first-time visitor, perches on a teacher’s lap munching goldfish crackers on this chilly Monday morning. Just behind her, 17-year-old Dayton sits upright at a desk alongside an aide, ready for the day’s activities. Scattered throughout the room are bins of learning aids (paper snowflakes, small musical instruments, and more); shelves of books; a set of parallel bars; wooden climbing ladders; and padded floor mats in front of a mirrored wall.
It’s an interesting place, to be sure, but nothing about this scene seems miraculous. And yet everything about it is.
All of the kids who spend time in this small center have neurological or mobility disorders from spina bifida, genetic mutations, or cerebral palsy. In fact, doctors said many of them might never be able to move or communicate, let alone walk or talk. Yet here they all are. Lourdes and Addy have each just walked to the fridge and back, and eaten their snacks without help. Amelia’s fighting off sleep after a morning of rigorous activity, but still keeping a tight grip on a special handlebar designed to help her learn to sit upright. And Dayton, though nonverbal, is engaging playfully with his aide and Spiegel; a tweak of the nose means he’s happy. A bent arm over his eyes means he’s feeling shy.
The teacher, or Conductor, in this particular classroom is Judit Tirkalane, a gentle but encouraging native of Hungary. She’s devoted her life’s work to helping these kids achieve the seemingly impossible. But the real reason any of them are here is Donna Spiegel. If that name seems familiar, it probably is—Spiegel is the founder of Greater Cincinnati’s chain of Snooty Fox consignment shops. But here, at the Conductive Learning Center of Greater Cincinnati (CLC), she’s known as both Dayton’s grandma and the school’s founder.
Calling Spiegel a master problem-solver is probably an understatement; she started the first Snooty Fox shop, in Terrace Park, because she’d moved back here from Virginia and couldn’t find a good place to consign her old maternity clothes. Now, 40 years later, she oversees 10 Fox locations, from Erlanger to West Chester, and is one of Cincinnati’s more successful and recognizable—thanks to the television and print ads she’s been appearing in for decades—small business owners.
She was just opening a new Fox location, in fact, when 2-year-old Dayton came to live with her and her husband, Dennis, in 2005, for reasons she keeps private. When Spiegel realized Dayton spent most days sitting in a pumpkin seat, staring at a ceiling fan instead of toddling around like a typical 2-year-old, she immediately began working to figure out why.
One pediatrician told her “he just needs to be held and rocked and loved,” says Spiegel. “So I rocked, I held, I sang—I did everything.” But none of it worked. Dayton fell further behind. When he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (later, doctors would realize he had a rare genetic mutation instead), Spiegel was told Dayton would likely never walk or talk. But call it strong will, a grandmother’s intuition, or a little of both, she refused to accept that Dayton would only ever stare at the ceiling. Instead, she tried every kind of therapy with him she could—physical, occupational, even speech. Again, none of it worked.
This is not going to change. This is what he’s been dealt, Spiegel found herself thinking. But “one night, I was watching 60 Minutes,” she says, “and a segment came on about a mother [and] her son with cerebral palsy, and how this special therapy in Hungary made such a difference.” Developed in the 1940s, the therapy was called Conductive Education, and it focused on helping retrain the brains of kids with neurological and mobility issues by using intentional and highly repetitive movement. The idea, said anchor Scott Pelley, was, “If the brain is forced to try, it will learn to connect mind and muscle.”
Spiegel watched specially trained teachers, called Conductors, help previously immobile kids learn to sit up on their own and roll over using simple wooden tools like ladderback chairs and tables called plinths fitted with grab bars, much of it purposely uncomfortable to motivate the kids to actively use muscles or move. She heard them singing songs and saw them working in groups, so the kids could motivate and encourage one another. And she watched kids like Dayton do all the things she’d been told he’d never do, like holding their heads up, sitting independently, even walking. Some kids were struggling—the process is physically taxing and takes both stamina and patience—but many were smiling, looking like they’d achieved a sense of purpose and independence. And their parents seemed to have something Spiegel desperately needed: a vibrant sense of hope. When the segment was over, she says, “I thought, Oh my gosh, I’m going to have to take this child to Hungary.”
A quick internet search showed a trip overseas wasn’t necessary; there were already Conductive Education schools in the U.S. Spiegel applied to one in Michigan; Dayton was accepted. Four weeks into the classes, the gamble paid off. Dayton did something Spiegel thought she’d never see: He rolled over. Four weeks after that, he sat up without help.
After a year traveling back and forth, Spiegel was torn. “I thought, I can’t take Dayton out of this program, and I can’t live in Michigan forever in a Holiday Inn. I had my business and my husband.” So, master problem solver that she is, “I talked that school into helping me open a school here.” She and Dennis bought the Covington building from St. Elizabeth Healthcare. They had the space renovated, and volunteers painted it bright, cheerful colors. The Conductors began offering free assessments to find kids to come to the school. Most were accepted, says Spiegel, noting, “we’ve had children blind, deaf, whatever.” The only major criteria for qualifying, she adds, is “you have to be motivated.” In 2006, with six students, Cincinnati’s Conductive Learning Center opened.
That, says Spiegel, is when “we just started seeing miracles happen: kids sit up for the first time, put weight on their feet for the first time, maybe take steps with the ladder back chair, as I had seen in Michigan.” Lourdes, who wasn’t supposed to be able to walk or talk, was soon ambling unaided up the school’s accessible ramp; now, she talks so much “we can’t stop her,” says her dad, Steve Kayser.
When Dayton unexpectedly took off walking up the aisle at church one summer, people dubbed it “The Miracle of Vacation Bible School.” Spiegel—every bit the beaming grandmother—says she’s all for divine intervention, but by that point, she notes, Dayton had been painstakingly learning how to walk at the CLC for years and had even taken a few steps. If the incentive of seeing his pastor and the other kid campers finally made it all click, so be it. The bottom line, she says, is that the boy who doctors once thought would never move a muscle now had the capacity to walk.
The problem with Conductive Education, Spiegel discovered, is that it’s not medically recognized here in the U.S. A Cleveland-based pediatrician in the 60 Minutes segment noted it hasn’t been studied long-term and said it almost sounds too good to be true. Medical insurance won’t pay for it. Pair that with the fact that student-to-teacher ratios at the CLC need to be very small, and you have a pretty expensive proposition. This is especially burdensome for parents of kids with mobility issues, who are already grappling with significant medical and therapy bills.
Noodling over this subject in the shower one day, it came to Spiegel: Why not use Snooty Fox to help fund the school? And just like that, the consummate problem-solver made it happen. Today, proceeds from the chain’s Platinum Card (a special discount card shoppers can purchase) and December charter bus tours, plus the Angel Fox discount section of every store, help fund the school. The only thing parents pay to send their kids to the CLC is $10 an hour.
“You can be a great business person, which [Donna] is, but changing all these kids’ lives? It’s priceless,” says Kayser, who notes that Lourdes’s life will be longer and more fulfilling because of all the CLC has helped her learn to do. “To have run this and run her stores at the same time, it’s pretty amazing.”
Spiegel accepts the praise with an embarrassed smile, then laughs and calls herself “nuts” to have taken on so much. (At press time, she and Executive Director Kelli Flanigan were searching for a new Ohio location so that they will be able to accept the state-based Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship.) In the end, though, Spiegel is adamant about one thing. “Dayton was the inspiration,” she says. “He’s got the legacy. Without Dayton, [the school] wouldn’t be here. There was a reason for it all to happen.”
Back in the classroom, Tirkalane is presenting a lesson about winter. As Dayton sifts his hands through a bowl of artificial snow, helping develop his sense of touch, Tirkalane asks Addy and Lourdes questions, helping them work on their verbal and speech skills. When asked what month it is, Addy stumbles; she clearly knows it’s January, but can’t quite get the word out right.
Without hesitation, Lourdes reaches over and puts her arm around her friend’s shoulder in support. Soon enough, they both laugh and say the word together. And just like that, the world becomes more about what they can do, together, than what they can’t. Which is just what Spiegel wanted all along.