Advocating Beyond Legislative Session: Building Avenues for Change

Featuring Shelley Spivey

Being an active advocate isn’t just about protesting, working on legislation, or contacting your representative. It starts small in moments and opportunities that reveal themselves to you daily. It’s about having meaningful, connected conversations with the people you interact with in your daily life and making change where you can. This is where family advocate Shelley Spivey shines.

When Spivey’s son was diagnosed with autism in 2018, she quickly knew she needed to connect with other parents and students with autism but couldn’t find a solution that worked for her family. This vacuum inspired Spivey to create Waves Autism Center in Warner Robins, Georgia, and to become involved in a number of advocacy efforts.

Shelley continually looks for and participates in several formal and informal community groups relating to developmental disability advocacy. She is a founding member of the Leadership Circle on the Georgia Coalition of Family Advocates on Developmental Disabilities. When joining the coalition, Spivey said, “I hope to help facilitate conversations that will improve the lives of our children, young adults, and students in our state. I hope to connect with others in our community and around Georgia to create bridges of communication, leading to well-being and an increase of support and resources.”

Spivey continues to be an active member of the coalition and shared her experience as a family advocate during a 2021 Virtual Lunch and Learn session with the Coalition of Family Advocates.

Her participation has assisted in growing her advocacy network. “We want to be able to create bridges so that we can start opening up more opportunities,” said Spivey. “The more organizations and people we connect with the more opportunities we unlock for our students.”

Spivey also serves on the Project AWARE of Houston County and the Middle Georgia Regional Transition Council.

Shelley Spivey knows that the path forward to more opportunities for children with autism and other intellectual or developmental disabilities in Georgia is a challenging path. But it’s one that starts with partnerships with parents, advocates, schools, and organizations.

“I just wanted to bring people together,” said Spivey, “to be able to connect with and create relationships with others that have experienced similar concerns and challenges.”

Spivey, a therapist by training, previously worked with women and children who were emotionally abused or women exiting the prison system but she decided it was best for her family to refocus her efforts on autism support for her son and eventually, for others.

Shelley isn’t alone, the whole Spivey family is involved with Waves: sons Schuyler and Cameron Spivey serve as peer mentors to other students with autism. When he’s not working as a peer mentor, Schuyler Spivey is an active self-advocate and has worked with partners across Georgia to advocate for opportunities for students with autism. Schuyler is a member of the Gen Z Georgia Community Mentorship Program. The success of programs at Waves helped to push Schuyler to become active in advocacy. “Schuyler is a totally different person than he was four years ago,” said Shelley. Growing a new generation of advocates is a positive but unintended outcome of Spivey’s efforts.

The road to making meaningful change is often not a straight line or a clear path. Challenges and inequities can be daunting, and self-care is an important part of being a long-term advocate. Spivey shared that self-care has always been an important part of her professional career as a therapist. This holds true today as a parent of a child with a developmental disability and an advocate. She uses music to help her feel centered and to relax.

Sometimes advocacy is looking at the issues that we can move forward most easily. It’s in finding common ground and having meaningful discussions with people who have opposing viewpoints. And it’s about finding or building the resources or paths our students need that are missing. “My goal is to provide hope and a clear path forward,” said Spivey.

Shelley Spivey