By Jessica Thiel
When Harriet Redman’s son, Phillip, was diagnosed with an extremely rare chromosomal abnormality, she quickly realized life would change not just for her and her husband, but also their 3-year-old daughter, Christiana.
While Redman, a teacher who holds a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in home economics with a concentration in family systems, was uniquely well positioned to help guide her family through the momentous shift, it took some time for the full gravity of the situation to sink in.
A defining moment came when Redman was playing with her son and 7-year-old daughter outside and Christiana asked her mother whether she was going to care for her brother when her parents died. Redman says she was prepared to answer this question but expected it to come when her daughter was 17 or 27, not 7.
“I tell this story a lot because it’s the essence of what these little guys have on their minds,” Redman says.
Galvanized, Redman began searching for literature on the impact of having a sibling with disabilities but found little. Eventually, she came across the work of Don Meyer of Washington state, who had created Sibshops – workshops that allow siblings of children with disabilities to connect with peers in similar situations.
Redman became a trained Sibshop leader, but she felt called to do more. In 1998, she created a nonprofit organization focused on the needs of siblings of people with disabilities. Originally called the Fox Valley Sibling Support Network Inc., the organization helped launch the national Sibling Leadership Network in 2007 and was renamed WisconSibs Inc. in 2014.
The nonprofit has gone on to create a host of innovative programs, including workshops, social events, presentations, consulting and coaching. The work is all aimed at providing a network of support for siblings throughout their entire lifespan.
“Harriet Redman is a true social innovator — a person who identified an opportunity and need because of her personal experience and turned that into an organization that has helped thousands of individuals and families in northeastern Wisconsin and across the state become stronger and better prepared for the future,” says Rich Redman, who nominated his wife, Harriet, for the Women of Influence Award.
In addition to running WisconSibs, Redman advocates for caregivers because if not enough are available, it leaves family members with fewer choices if they choose to care for their disabled siblings as they age. Local, state and national governments play an important role in determining what services are provided for people with disabilities, Redman says.
More than 20 years in, Redman says the most rewarding part of her work is when adults who went through the program as kids stop her and tell her how much they appreciated the experience. Paying attention to siblings’ needs matters, she says. “That’s what we were paying them, attention to something that they didn’t know exactly how to talk about, but they understood, and that’s the most gratifying.”
Click here to view Harriet Redman’s acceptance speech.