A Farmer's Dream Lives On
How the Spader Family's Networking Success is Transforming Peru's Lost Children

By John David Mann

The Spaders

The story started out in the rich, rural vein of the classic American-heartland tale of values and entrepreneurial success. But through unexpected tragedy and extraordinary vision, it has grown to become something quite larger than itself.

Throughout their rich and happy life together, South Dakota farmers Vince and Mary Spader lived the kind of hard-working lives one comes to expect, growing up on a farm. Back in the early 70's, they came across the concept of network marketing. Their interest piqued by the company's nutritional products, they signed on, and enjoyed some measure of success.

"We traveled, earned cars and had what we certainly experienced as success," says Mary, "but it didn't support us financially. We always had the farm and other businesses associated with farming."

A full 20 years later, Vince and Mary became intrigued with a newer network marketing enterprise--one that soon experienced the sort of growth spurt the Spaders had not previously seen.

"The first company had wonderful products, and we learned a great deal about networking with them; now we were able to apply what we'd learned."

 

Tragedy

As Mary tells it, it was really Vince who built the business.

"He was the one who was out there doing the prospecting; I would do the follow-up work. I was the support person."

Then, in July 1999, suddenly and unexpectedly, Vince died. Among other aspects of coping with the loss, Mary had to come to terms with the business--on her own terms. She was, of course, intimately familiar with the business from the inside, but assuming responsibility for the entire operation was something else indeed.

"It's been a challenge," she admits; "I'm not a person to get up and talk in front of other people. Vince was so good at that; he was such a good presenter. He was a very positive, very motivated and motivational person; when he set his mind to something, it just happened."

Bit by bit, Mary has taken on elements of Vince's legacy.

"Since I've always been more of a support person, that's what I've tried to be for our downline. At the same time, I've tried to learn from what Vince was able to do, and get myself, little by little, to just get up there and do it. I'm getting a little more courageous as the time goes by!"

Not that Mary is alone: in true American farm tradition, the Spader network is a family business, with three of the six kids--Kevin, Melanie, Brenda--actively involved in the work of the network.

 

The Dream

In addition to taking care of their substantial network, Mary has been able to see another, larger dream of Vince's come to fruition as well.

"From very early on," explains Mary, "Vince had a dream: he had always wanted to help underprivileged children, children who didn't have any ability to better their own lives."

By the late 90's, that dream had begun to look more and more within reach.

"Once our network marketing business really began to grow, we realized it was starting to give us the kind of financial leverage we could apply to that long-held idea. Maybe we really could do something, something that would make a real difference in a substantial way."

The only missing ingredient was soon to be supplied by a stroke of the kind of serendipity that good dreams seem so invariably to attract. That spark was not long in coming--from an unexpected quarter and a circuitous pathway.

 

The Project

According to the World Book Encyclopedia, one out of three people in Lima, Peru, live in squatter communities consisting of bamboo, cardboard, straw or tin huts. Of the eight million in population, three million people (mainly youngsters) have what they call "different abilities"--what we refer to as autism, mental retardation, Downs Syndrome and other cognitive disabilities. Fewer than one percent are currently being helped in any significant way.

Over 20 years ago, one woman decided to change that, a woman whose life would one day intersect with the networking family of South Dakota farmers.

"This wonderful person, Liliana Mayo, took it upon herself to start a school where she could teach these children and change their lives," explains Mary Spader. "Liliana recognized that these kids are not a lost cause, they're not at all hopeless, that they all have abilities. She decided that she had to prove to all the people in her community that she could do something with these children."

As a psychology intern in Peru in the late 70's, Mayo happened to spend some time in a special education school. (As Mayo herself recounts it, she was transferred there "as a punishment for asking too many questions.") There she met an autistic girl named Patty. Working with her, Mayo soon realized the girl had a great capacity to learn. A priest took her to see other autistic children--which is when she encountered the horrors of the mentally disadvantaged, third-world culture experience.

It is perhaps hard for readers in more affluent and educated societies to grasp the extent of the challenge facing these millions of children, living in a world where special education is largely a taboo subject. When Liliana first began going into these children's homes, she found kids locked up in closets or tied to beds, sometimes sitting in their own waste. Neither families, schools nor the government had any idea what to do with them.

In 1979, inspired by the challenge, Liliana started the Ann Sullivan Center (named
after Helen Keller's teacher) for kids with
developmental disabilities--in her parents' garage. That facility served eight children; today the Center serves over 300 people, and has become world-renowned for its contributions as a model center for research, demonstration, and training in the areas of severe mental retardation, autism, and behavioral problems.

In 1984, with about 50 children enrolled in the Center, Mayo's parents raised money by selling a house they owned to help her relocate to the United States to further her training. Impressed with the writings of a psychologist named Judith LeBlanc, Liliana applied to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where Dr. LeBlanc taught at the Department in Human Development. For the next ten years, she spent each spring in Kansas pursuing her education (she followed a Masters with a Ph.D. in '96); each summer students and teachers beat a path to Peru to observe and assist her in the growing phenomenon of the Ann Sullivan Center.

 

Ann Sullivan Center The Connection and Dedication

It was through an organization on the KU campus that Liliana's mission became fortuitously interwoven with Vince Spader's dream.

"The son of a friend we'd known through the farming community was working there," explains Mary. The friend's son, John Flynn, happened to be development director at the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at Kansas University. Flynn was intrigued with Mayo's mission; he also knew that Vince's goal in life, after paying the bills, was to help disadvantaged children.

Through Flynn, the connection was made and the Spaders immediately turned on a spigot of financial support that has continued ever since. ("I send a monthly contribution to help keep it going," says Mary modestly. "It's not enough to complete their budget, but it helps.") But it was not until nearly a year after Vince's death that Liliana was able to fly to South Dakota, where the two women finally met face to face.

From that meeting came the idea of building a special section of the Center dedicated to the memory of Vince Spader.

On August 21, dedication ceremonies were held for the Vince and Mary Spader section, adding 4500 square feet of new classrooms, offices and a medical clinic. Said Flynn, who flew down for the event, "I cried when I got off the plane; I didn't stop until I got back on."

Flynn was not the only US resident in attendance.

"John arranged for me and three of my daughters--Cindy, Vicky and Melinda--to go down and visit for the dedication of our section," remembers Mary. (The other three kids desperately wanted to go, but decided to stay home and work with the network so their mom and sisters could have the experience.)

"It was heartwarming," says Mary; "it was incredible simply to see the building, let alone all that they've been able to accomplish within its walls. The first section that went up has a handicapped-accessible area--the very first handicapped-accessible building in Lima."

Had we heard that last fact correctly? We checked to make sure. We had. Here, in the
capital city of Peru, there was not a single handicapped-accessible building to be found before the Spader wing of Ann Sullivan. It forms a poignant symbol not only of the pioneering nature of the Center, but also of the dire level of need.

"One day we had the opportunity to go up and visit the poor families up in the mountains, who live in these little tin and cardboard huts," says Mary. "It was a sight that I will never, ever forget. I've lived on a farm all my life; the poorest buildings on a farm would still have been a palace to these people. I would not have been able to imagine the conditions there, if I hadn't seen them myself. To help those children meet their special needs is a mission I will have for the rest of my life.

 

A Mission of Miracles

"It is phenomenal to see what Liliana and her staff have done here. The teachers have so much compassion for these children; I could not believe the level and extent of their patience."

Depending largely upon private donations for financial support, the Ann Sullivan Center handles about 300 people throughout the week. "They aren't all there at one time," explains Mary; "they come in shifts, some in the morning and some in the afternoon."

A diverse program has developed at Ann
Sullivan. Parents are taught parenting skills; doctors and nurses operate a visiting clinic for sick students and families. And through a long-distance educational program, social workers in remote areas of Peru are taught how to train youth with developmental disabilities.

But the most impressive and moving dimension of the Center continues to be their own on-site work with children of all ages.

"Liliana likes to work with babies," explains Mary, "but they simply don't have the facilities for that. Liliana says that if she can start working with a child at less than a year of age, that's best; but she takes kids all the way up into their early 20s."

In fact, one of the Center's more remarkable accomplishments is that they work with young adults with significant (and in some cases, severe) disabilities and provide them with an environment where they can learn and practice work skills. In many cases, these young adults go on to enter the work force and support themselves--to function freely as active participants in society. The center currently has some 40 students with severe disabilities who are working and supporting their families.

"They took us to places where they've been able to place some of these kids," Mary recounts. "We saw a grocery store where these young boys were working, stocking shelves. At another, they were weighing fruits and vegetables, packing them into baskets and marking them for sale. These were mentally handicapped kids, society's discards--and here they were, happy and at work in the world! It was breathtaking--truly, a place of miracles.

"One young man was packaging eggs, and doing it so perfectly. We asked him, 'How many do you break a day?' He replied that he had broken only two--in the last year! He was just a perfectionist at what he was doing, putting those eggs in that carton. It was utterly heartwarming."

It's also a real testament, Mary points out, to the possibilities inherent in a successful network marketing business.

"Clearly, none of this would have happened if not for the success of our networking business. Vince's dream, Vince's hard work, and the freedom and financial leverage that networking creates--that's what made all this possible.

And her plans for travel to Peru?

"I can't wait to go back. They'll be having another dedication for the Center's 25th anniversary, in 2004. We'll be there."