It’s an unusually chilly Friday morning in early November when I pull into the parking lot of the café where I’ve arranged to meet Raissa Chandler. She’s the founder and leader of Southside Support, a not-for-profit organization for families with children who have special needs. Through Facebook groups, planned events, and regularly scheduled meeting at coffee shops, she and the other parents who’ve become Southside’s leaders provide invaluable support and guidance to the special needs community.
Although we’ve never met, I’ve heard a lot about Raissa: If you ask anyone in the special needs community who the best person is to talk to about anything from neuropsychologists to Medicaid waivers, you’re likely to hear: “Talk to Raissa Chandler. No, really, you need to talk to Raissa.” She’s become Fayette’s unofficial expert on who-to-call, what-to-do, how-to-get-what-you-need for parents. And she’s channeled that knowledge into Southside Support.
After stepping into the scented warmth of the café, I spot her across the room, and it’s my first indication of how she makes it all happen. Raissa’s sitting at a table with a group of Southside moms, evidently planning to conduct our interview alongside of her participation in the group’s weekly coffee date. Feeling a little shy about asking her the story of her life in front of an audience, I coax her into a separate, quiet table in the corner, and she comes willingly, joking about her relentless drive to multitask. “It’s who I am,” she laughs. “I’m an overachiever.”
As it turns out, she’s not exaggerating. Growing up in Bradenton, Fla., Raissa took on numerous pursuits – she played six different instruments, was a drum major, and participated in countless science fairs, academic bowls, and music camps. Her list of high school achievements is lengthy and impressive, including a special award she received in both 8th and 12th grade for being the best of the class (“It’s sort of like teacher’s pet award,” she explains), the “Dreamers and Doers” award from Disney, a National Merit Scholarship and, in her senior year, the class Salutatorian. If Raissa saw a chance to compete, she’d go for it – and usually win. “I was even a semifinalist in a beauty pageant,” she says, grinning.
That drive to accomplish took her to Georgia Tech, where she majored in civil engineering. A co-op internship led her to a full-time position at Star Enterprise, where she worked as a project manager and engineering consultant. “I designed efficient, beautiful systems,” she explains. Her work included some environmental engineering, such as helping to oversee the cleanup of $4 million petroleum spills and building service stations in Atlanta and Birmingham. She also “got efficient at shutting things down,” closing and demolishing obsolete gas stations and mothballing fuel terminals. “Working with environmental law, I had to take federal regulations and had to interpret them,” she notes. “That was useful for me later when I began working with laws pertaining to Medicaid law for my own children.” The job also required Raissa to make use of her exceptional organizational skills, which she’d also draw upon later in life in her work with Southside Support.
Those years – the mid-to-late-1990s – were also the beginning of her married life. Raissa had met Scott, a native of south Atlanta, while they were both at Tech (“I was gaga in love,” she says), and the two quickly hit it off. They married after graduation in June of 1993 and settled in Smyrna. “I was a workaholic,” Raissa remembers. “Scott would make plans for romantic dinners, and I wouldn’t show because I was working so late.” Raissa was so intent on her work, she didn’t see the point of taking time out to go and enjoy the 1996 Olympics, which she had free tickets to because her employer was a sponsor. But she and Scott did manage to take a couple of getaway trips, visiting Australia and New Zealand in 1999 and cruising the Baltic Sea together in 2001. “You can’t put a price on experiences like that,” Raissa says. “You know how they tell you to visualize your ‘happy place’? I’ve actually been to my happy place. It’s a fjord called Milford Sound in New Zealand. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.”
After her company was bought out, Raissa moved on to Manhattan Associates in Smyrna, where she assisted in building the customer support center from four employees to a 24/7 operation. The job was incredibly intense, and Raissa – ever the overachiever—kept the volume turned up as high as it could go, producing one impressive feat (what she refers to as “firework moments”) after another. Her exceptional work became expected of her as the norm; within a couple of years, she started to crumble under the immense pressure and stress. “That’s when I had my first ‘crucible moment,’” she says. “I was in the fire, and ground up, and burning, and I didn’t see a way out. Ultimately, it was my faith that forged me in that fire to become the tool for compassion today.”
In 2000, after a brief respite to regain her health (including a cruise to the Western Caribbean), Raissa moved to a different job with Synquest in Norcross, where she created training modules for software programs that brought products to market faster. She did her job very well, but instead of non-stop overachieving, she took a step back and created a “firework moment” only occasionally – necessary, too, because she was pregnant with twins. In 2002, the company was bought out by Viewlocity, Inc. The timing was good, and Raissa got a great severance package at the end of her maternity leave to take care of her newborns, Daniel and Daphne.
In time, however, the demands of raising twins became overwhelming for Raissa, and she found herself struggling against postpartum depression, back in the crucible, trying to stay afloat.
Her support system was there for her, though. “I’m grateful my parents came to live with me for two years,” she says. “I also worked with a therapist. I felt spent, but it was the beginning of understanding how to treat myself well.”
As the babies grew into toddlers, Raissa and her pediatrician became increasingly concerned about their development. Lack of communication, lack of eye contact, severe aggression, three-hour tantrums, sleeplessness and other concerning symptoms pointed to severely profound autism. And with her postpartum depression having devolved into cyclical depression, Raissa went through many rough patches. “I would hire babysitters just so I could sleep in my car or shop for groceries,” she recalls.
In 2007, Scott’s mother, who lived in Fayetteville, passed away, leaving Scott and Raissa her current residence. The Chandlers sold their home in Smyrna and moved here. Although the move seemed fortuitous – their house had sold within a week, despite the crashing real estate market – Raissa was now without a support network. “I was finding it difficult to find resources, so I looked for help,” she said.
Raissa joined Fayette FACTOR (Fayette Alliance Coordinating Teamwork, Outreach and Resources), a collaborative umbrella organization that is part of a network of 159 counties that make up Georgia Family Connection. FACTOR’s projects vary, but all share the goal of strengthening the community and improving the well-being of children and families in Fayette County. After joining FACTOR, Raissa took an advocacy course called Partners in Policymaking, which taught her how to advocate for the needs for her children within the community in which she lived. She was then approached by Parent to Parent (P2P) of Georgia (http://p2pga.org), an organization that provides support, information services, and training and leadership opportunities for families who have children and youth with disabilities. P2P asked Raissa to become a primary parent contact, or Navigator Leader, for Fayette County.
In her training as a Navigator for P2P, Raissa sharpened her knowledge of state and local services for special needs children and put to good use the Partners in Policymaking training by actively participating in community organizing, including speaking in public, establishing partnerships, soliciting donations, networking, organizing parents and volunteers, and planning events. She dove right in, and quickly found herself working with local parents and forming a support community.
“That’s really the seed of Southside Support,” she explains. “That’s how Southside got started – as a Navigator team.” As time passed, Raissa realized that her outreach had expanded beyond the boundaries of Fayette County. “I’d hold an event, and realize that I had attendees coming from all over South Metro. Many of the parents were from Coweta, Clayton, or South Fulton.” She began to think about re-organizing her outreach to encompass a larger area.
As her children grew older and entered the Fayette school system, Raissa was able to utilize and appreciate the county’s excellent teachers and professionals; both of her children began to show improvements. “Today, because of Fayette’s educational services, we are college bound,” she notes. “It was having the right teachers, the right support, the right tools and equipment – all at the right time.”
She also credits Brain Balance of Peachtree City with helping to improve the twins’ behavioral issues. And she’s quick to give a shout-out to Hope House, Challenger Baseball, Fayette’s Parks and Recreation Department, Fayette YMCA, 4H, Scouting, and Fuller Life Chiropractic, as well as the teams of therapists who worked with them on behaviors, life skills, and communication. “We’ve built an entire village to help support and push the twins to greater heights,” she says.
Of course, creating her “village” was largely attributable to Raissa’s activism, which was increasing in scope and reach. The Fayette Navigator team had grown substantially by early 2012, when Raissa collaborated with local parents of special needs children to produce a one-day seminar for college-bound students with autism. Peggy Thomas, Fayette Woman’s January 2012 cover woman, collaborated with her on the project.
“Both of us were unable to dream small for the conference or the knowledge we both knew we and other local families needed for their children, and together we brought in a nationally recognized author and speaker John Elder Robison,” Peggy says. “The conference was a hit, and I believe it launched Raissa’s confidence in her ability to recognize a need in the community and find just the right resource to help her get there.”
It was at that point that Raissa decided to incorporate her organization as a non-profit: Southside Support, Inc. was officially born. “And we came out rockin’,” Raissa notes. That year, in addition to the symposium, Raissa and her new team of parent-activists launched a website and held a “Kid Fun Expo” for summer camps accessible to special needs children.
Raissa also continued her partnership with Fayette FACTOR, through which she created a community directory for resources for food and healthcare – a map of food pantries, she explains – that is now being utilized and expanded on by the health department.
The rapidly growing momentum of their first year sapped in 2013, however, when most of the original Southside team was suddenly unable to continue participation for various reasons. “Everybody moved, got full-time jobs, went back to school, had surgery, or got pregnant,” Raissa says. “I felt like the organization went ‘kapoof’ for a while.” In retrospect, though, it worked out well. Raissa was able to focus on building the Facebook community – going from 10 members to a current roster of over 400 members – and it remains to this day an integral component of the Southside community. “The biggest thing I learned was that during a year where it seems like your support goes away, where nothing is going on, that’s okay,” she says. “You don’t need to move forward, you just have to keep facing forward.”
That year, a growth pattern began to emerge. Parents would visit Southside Support’s Facebook page to find information or resources related to a specific issue, and that would become a gateway to involvement in the organization. “You start out as a looker on Facebook, then you find out about a coffee meeting,” Raissa explains. “You come and you’re nervous, then we get you laughing. Then you develop relationships, and you start contributing. Then you start volunteering, and you say, ‘This is amazing,” and then you become a committee chair. And then the best part happens: We ask you to pull up the next villager who’s looking to connect, and you get to watch the cycle unfold again. ”
Getting people involved and invested in “the village” – in other words, creating an organization of participants who become spiritual neighbors to each other and activists in the larger community – is Raissa’s ultimate goal.
“Unlike the old adage, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ I’ve come to realize that ‘If it involves coffee, margaritas, bacon, or free childcare, they will come.’ Community organizing is a lifelong hobby of mine – I love finding out nuggets of shared interests between colleagues so that I can connect the right person at the right time.” – Raissa Chandler
“Raissa has an amazing ability to connect with people exactly where they are at in their lives,” says Jennifer Conforti, Southside Support’s Executive Director. “She understands just about anything you can throw in her lap and has innumerable resources in her ‘Rolodex.’”
This past year, with a stronger membership base in place, Southside Support held several events: a motorcycle ride for autism in April, a “Safe Space” tent at various community events throughout the summer and early fall, a Metro South regional transition fair, and a symposium in early September that featured the founder of Brain Balance as its keynote speaker.
Looking ahead to 2015, Raissa plans to continue moving her organization forward by connecting, training, and empowering its members, and by focusing on fundraising efforts to accomplish their goals. One of the first items on Southside’s list is to secure funding for a Safe Space trailer, and a Southside Support gala in February will contribute directly to that project [see sidebar, pg. 15].
“Raissa has united a whole special needs community and trained us all to be open to speaking the language of advocacy, acceptance, and advancement for our loved ones,” says Peggy.
For Raissa, the experiences she’s had and the work she’s done are all part of a larger spiritual journey.
“It’s the crucibles of life – the places where we are ground up and are on fire, where we use the opportunity to pause, to connect with the higher power in our life, and trust that our higher power will bring us out forged and ready for our next purpose,” she says. “You might as well bring friends along to persevere and help one another. At the end of the crisis, we’ll all be a stronger village.”