More than 70 metro moms were nominated for our annual Awesome Moms contest this year, and we were inspired by the stories of each and every one of them. Congratulations to this year’s winner, Wanda Felty, and our two finalists, Essie Green and Cheryl Gruntmeir.
Read about all of our 2020 nominees at metrofamilymagazine.com/2020-
Wanda Felty keenly remembers sitting at her kitchen table in Spiro, Okla., calling every government agency she could think of in an attempt to get some help for her middle daughter Kayla, who was born with developmental disabilities.
“I was crying because I was on the brink,” remembers Felty. “I had a teen daughter and a baby and Kayla, who was not sleeping. I needed help.”
Felty still doesn’t know who expedited Kayla to the top of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services Developmental Disabilities Services list, but it was about a week later that she received the call that Kayla would receive two hours of personal care per day. That changed Felty’s world, and she’s spent much of her life since, personally and professionally, doing the same for others.
“The most inspiring thing about Wanda is how she uses this lived experience with her daughter to offer personal support and encouragement to other families who have children with developmental disabilities,” said Felty’s husband, Rick, who nominated her.
After a divorce, Felty raised her three daughters on her own for awhile, until she met and eventually married Rick when Kayla was in ninth grade. Not long after, it was Rick who encouraged Felty’s current career at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, initially as a family advocate through The Children’s Hospital and now a community leadership and advocacy coordinator for the Center for Learning and Leadership at the health complex.
The federally-funded program oversees evidence-based training of future professionals working with people with developmental disabilities.
“I take my knowledge of policy and legislation and lived experience to train students on what it’s really like to have a child with a disability,” explains Felty.
She also helps state agencies work together with parents of children with disabilities to hone and modify programs, policies or legislation meant to help people with disabilities.
“There may be a practice or program that was created with good intentions,” said Felty, “but we can share parents’ stories about how they can work better for families like theirs.”
Felty helps parents and professionals understand the importance of creating interdisciplinary teams, with each of their input, along with the self-advocate they are serving, valued by all members of the team. That’s a process that hasn’t always come easily for Felty. On many occasions, she’s felt very alone in her journey, exhausted by what has felt like a constant fight for Kayla to enjoy the life she deserves.
“What I’ve learned through training is that we all need each other to make the best decisions for my daughter,” said Felty. “I had to learn to value the professionals’ knowledge and they learned to value mine. I used to feel like everyone was against us; come to find out they are all really for us.”
Born without the middle portion of her brain forming correctly, Kayla is blind and non-verbal. Felty calls Kayla her first and most important teacher as she’s learned both how to advocate for Kayla and to communicate with, understand and always respect her daughter, whose behavior at times, she confesses, has been hard to manage. Felty often reminds Kayla that she’ll have to teach her how to understand her, and throughout the years Kayla has come up with clever ways to do just that, like humming “Happy Birthday” to indicate she wants dessert. From her dry sense of humor to her love of music, Felty calls Kayla her four leaf clover, valued as precious and unique.
“She doesn’t operate from any worldly prejudice,” said Felty. “Everyone is equal to her. She will offer respect if you respect her.”
Among Felty’s many roles, one of her most cherished is coordinating a quarterly meeting for all the families who, like she once did, have a loved one on the waiting list for OKDHS Developmental Disabilities Services. Felty says there are currently more than 5,000 people in the state of Oklahoma waiting for services, which are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.
“When Kayla was on the waiting list I thought nobody cared,” said Felty. “I don’t want anyone else to feel like they are alone.”
Felty brings in leaders from OKDHS and other agencies that support people with disabilities to listen to the families and offer interim solutions while they wait for state services. Attendees also benefit from parent-to-parent emotional support and resource sharing. Felty remembers a single, working mom was struggling to transfer her daughter from a wheelchair into the bathroom because the chair wouldn’t fit through the door. After one of Felty’s meetings, the mom’s connections led to getting her bathroom door widened enough to fit the chair, a tangible example of their community coming together to solve a parent’s struggle.
“Advocacy is not always about holding up signs,” said Felty. “It’s really about holding each other up, figuring out what worked for me and how that can help you.”
Felty says the individuals currently being processed on the Developmental Disabilities Services waiting list applied in 2007. Though that long wait time is discouraging, Felty is seeing progress made in the funding appropriated, from $7 million over the past 10 years to $2 million over each of the last two years and the potential for $6 million in the governor’s requested budget for the upcoming year.
“This tells me advocacy is making a difference,” said Felty. “We are no longer unknown and the decision makers are taking action. One voice is just a whisper, but many become a roar.”
Though Felty is quick to deflect attention from herself, her husband asserts that she is making a tremendous difference as an advocate and spokesperson for those 5,000 families on the waiting list for state services. Felty wishes she could take away Kayla’s disabilities so she could lead a typical life, but she’s grateful, too, for everything she’s learned as Kayla’s mom.
“Because of Kayla I am a whole different person,” said Felty. “My life changed and I hope my life makes other people’s lives better, too.”
Cheryl Gruntmeir has always known she wanted to foster children. She is adopted herself, and before she and husband Jon married, she explained that a life with her would include fostering. Jon was all in, but the couple had no idea when and what fostering would look like for them.
Years later, the parents of five found out. One of their oldest daughter’s friends had been spending a lot of time at their home when, unbeknownst to the Gruntmeirs, the teen ran away from her home to ask law enforcement to remove her from her traumatic living situation. The Gruntmeirs, who were completely unaware of her difficult home life, immediately took her in. When asked where she’d like to live long-term, the teen requested her biological mom, whom no one had heard from in a long time.
Undeterred, Gruntmeir and a friend began scouring Facebook, eventually finding and messaging the mom, Brandy Williams, who called Gruntmeir on Thanksgiving Day.
“The first thing I said was I don’t care what you’ve done or what you’ve been through, there’s no judgment here, I just wanted to know how I could help her come and fight for her daughter,” recalls Gruntmeir.
Williams was homeless, on drugs and without much hope. But that phone call changed everything. Williams stayed in communication with Gruntmeir, attended court dates, got sober and followed all of OKDHS’s requirements to be reunited with her daughter more than two years later.
“She led me to a life without drugs and helped me be the mom I was meant to be,” said Williams, who nominated Gruntmeir. “She is my angel on earth, a true light in so many people’s lives.”
The two women remain close friends years later. Both are incredibly proud of their daughter and foster daughter, today a wife, homeowner and mom herself. But their story doesn’t stop there. The duo felt called to reach other women on the brink.
“We wanted to start helping women who are displaced, in shelters or sober houses to bring them hope and share our story,” said Gruntmeir.
The Making Jesus Famous Association was born, collecting purses and toiletries to deliver to women across the metro, along with a Bible and an encouraging handwritten note. So far, more than 1,400 people have been served by the nonprofit organization. Women donate gently used purses, plus everything from shoes and nail polish to jewelry and personal hygiene items. When appropriate, Gruntmeir and Williams meet and speak with the women to whom they’re delivering purses.
Williams’ and Gruntmeir’s children often help with deliveries to the YWCA, City Rescue Mission and other shelters throughout Oklahoma City. Because her own dad included her in his ministry for the homeless, it’s been important for Gruntmeir to do the same with her children, who range in age from 10 to 23.
“Being able to provide them opportunities to give to others is huge,” said Gruntmeir.
A realtor and sales manager for an Edmond builder, Gruntmeir is involved in the day-to-day of the nonprofit but says it’s Williams who runs their Facebook group with more than 700 members, dedicated not only to the ministry of Making Jesus Famous but also providing consistent affirmation and promoting the work of other local nonprofits.
As Gruntmeir processed her recognition as an Awesome Mom, she says Williams is the one who deserves the honor.
“I look at her and think how far she has come from when I met her to where she is now,” said Gruntmeir. “To see Brandy go from this life of hopelessness without shelter and without a relationship with her child to now giving back and helping other women, it is just the coolest thing.”
Essie Green is the epitome of a caregiver. The mom of three and grandma of seven has worked for the last eight years as a full-time personal caregiver, providing her often isolated, elderly clients a sense of normalcy and comfort. Daughter Shanika, who nominated Green, says her mom gets her joy from helping others.
“I enjoy making a difference in people’s lives,” said Green.
In her career, Green gains just as much as she gives, currently learning to make a quilt from her 94-year-old client. Green’s intentionality in serving others is apparent as she ensures that same client, who once loved to garden, gets to stroll outside to enjoy the blooming flowers.
Though Green spent most of her professional career in finance, the caretaking role has come naturally to her all her life, in raising three daughters and then raising three grandchildren when her eldest daughter, Freedom, was tragically killed in a house fire.
Her grandchildren were 4, 5 and 10 years old when they came to live with her and her husband Walter, and their other daughters were 15 and 19 at the time. Faced with the unexpected challenge of raising children a second time while all grieving the loss of their mother, Green worried she wouldn’t be enough for Tony, Tashiyla and Essence.
“I wondered if I’d have enough energy and patience,” Green recalls.
A revelation to her then and still today: she had more. The beginning was the hardest, especially as friends who’d already raised kids and were in different stages of life drifted away.
Perhaps because she had already navigated the road before or she was older and wiser, Green felt blessed by getting to do everything twice — from attending basketball games and back-to-school nights to chauffeuring the kids to their various activities.
“I took a lot of pride in them, and in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘their mom would be so glad they are getting to do all these things,’” said Green.
Green is also quick to credit daughters Shanika and Laquilla with playing games and taking their nieces and nephew on outings so Green could focus on making meals, helping with homework and the rest of the day-to-day operations.
“Laquilla was in basic training in the military and she came home and fell right in, doing things that needed to get done,” said Green. “Shanika played a big part, too, entertaining them, which was important. We worked together.”
Green is grateful that for the many grandparents raising grandchildren today there’s more help available and those grandparents aren’t as alone as they may sometimes feel. One good, strong support system, in her case her two daughters and husband, can make all the difference.
Shanika says Green became their family’s rock during a devastating time, holding the family together, raising her sister’s children to be productive, compassionate citizens. All six of the children Green raised graduated with honors, with two of her grandchildren now in the military and one a corrections officer.
Though the family went through a period of time where talking about the daughter, sister and mother they lost was too painful, now they find great joy in being reminded of Freedom through her oldest daughter.
“Her facial expressions, her hand gestures, everything,” remarks Green of the similarities. “When we get together we’re always saying, ‘Your mom would have said or done that.’”
Green laughingly recalls Freedom “never did things my way, always her own way.” She also remembers that even when money was tight, Freedom focused on creating positive memories for her children with picnics on the living room floor or a special trip to the movies.
“She was always happy,” said Green.
A lesson clearly learned from her mom.