This is a story about a mother’s love for her daughter with Down syndrome and her overwhelming desire to help other people with disabilities, not only within the Coachella Valley but throughout Southern California.
Renée N. Griffin is a devoted volunteer at Desert Arc who, for the past eight years, has listened intently to the needs of the special needs community. Five years ago, she established Building Bridges for Special Needs – Coachella Valley, a parent-inspired group that connects families — especially the unserved and underserved — with community services and organizations; provides resources, information and education; and fosters collaboration between special needs service organizations regarding activities and events.
The program has now garnered the involvement of the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities. Some of the community organizations involved in this program include Angel View, the County of Riverside Department of Public Social Services, Desert Recreation District, Coachella Valley Down Syndrome Foundation, Ezekiel’s Gift of Love, Inland Empire Autism Society, Sunline Transit Agency, United Cerebral Palsy of Inland Empire and Variety – the Children’s Charity of the Desert.
“I initially found out about Desert Arc from my daughter Victoria’s high school transition team program,” Griffin says. “Desert Arc has really helped this program become what it is today, and the organization was definitely an integral part of it. I just took it to the next level by carefully listening to parents about their needs and concerns. As I started talking and spending more time with the parents involved in the Desert Arc program, I became keenly aware of their concerns but wondered why no one was addressing some of these issues.”
Two years ago, Griffin was named Desert Arc’s Volunteer of the Year for her relentlessness and willingness to lend a hand. Inspired by her daughter’s experience at the organization, she is truly invested and making a difference in the lives of other adult children and their parents.
In partnership with Ruth Goodsell and other Desert Arc team members, Griffin has also established Parent Links, a group created to foster communication, in which parents and Desert Arc staff meet in groups to address parents’ concerns. Griffin’s communication skills, honed by a long career in the print media and broadcast industry, soon landed her the job of administrator of Desert Arc’s Family Facebook page, where she facilitates communication among parents, staff and other stakeholders.
When the COVID pandemic hit, key organizations stepped up to the plate to create a Zoom community, which is still vibrant today, keeping people with disabilities safe, especially those individuals who are at a greater risk of getting sick.
“Renée Griffin is an involved parent who generously donates her time to promote networking amongst families and care providers within Desert Arc’s community of nearly 700 people with disabilities,” says Richard Balocco, president and CEO of Desert Arc. “She has also taken the initiative to develop a collaborative of other like-missioned organizations in the community to broaden the scope of opportunities for the people with disabilities involved in our respective programs, including sharing a monthly calendar of activities.”
Still, Griffin realized that more needed to be done.
“We needed to connect all our service organizations with families by educating them, providing them with information, developing events, etcetera,” she says. “I realized we all needed to work together instead of working independently. Every organization has its agenda for what it needs to accomplish, but sometimes they tend to duplicate efforts. My vision was to have these organizations work in collaboration with one another.
“The program is growing because of the people involved who want to work together to make it a success. Our families are grateful to the dedicated organizations’ willingness to collaborate and the parents’ interest in sharing their experiences to help others. And our program has expanded outside of Coachella Valley, with people involved now from Los Angeles, Orange County and other areas of the state.”
Since 2014, Griffin has also served as managing director of the High Hopes Dance Troupe. Why? “My daughter loves music and dancing,” she says. The 20 talented dancers, ages 15 and up, consistently brought audiences to their feet in pre-pandemic live shows and more recently in Zoom events. It is a heartwarming experience to see them dance with all their hearts.”
For Griffin, her volunteer work is a labor of love. “I have a great passion for the special needs community and am blessed to be a cheerleader in keeping it moving forward then, now and into the future.”
Madeline Zuckerman is owner and president of M. Zuckerman Marketing & Public Relations Inc., a strategic marketing, branding, public relations and special events firm with offices in Rancho Mirage and Newport Beach, California. Her clients have included South Coast Plaza, Pacific Symphony and Tiffany & Co. in Orange County and Desert Arc, Olive Crest and Mama’s House here in the desert. She is a Founder of McCallum Theatre and has been a guest reporter with The Desert Sun for the past 14 years.