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Amy Amaradio proves the power and possibilities of a mother’s love: finding beauty in the unexpected

By DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Rocco Keller was born five years ago, and diagnosed with Down syndrome, Amy Amaradio and Chris Keller’s friends Mary Kate and Kirk Saunders, who have a special needs child, offered comfort by saying, “So many little angels will come into your life.”

And true to this assurance, they did. Angels in various forms materialized during the ensuing years – friends who freely gave of their time and services, the staff and volunteers at the Early Intervention Program, teachers and therapists at Top of the World Elementary, and strangely, a horse (but more about that later). Even as recently as three days ago, Amaradio’s friend Rebecca made a house call at 7:45 a.m. just to give Rocco a haircut for the photo session.

Although initially friends quickly gathered round, Rocco came into a close-knit and supportive family. Alexis, now 20 years old, welcomed him wholeheartedly (two-year-old sister Gemma arrived later). Amaradio also has the solid foundation and help of family – two sets of parents, here in Monarch Beach and Michigan, as well as siblings and their spouses.

Amaradio gives back

Keller, long embedded in Laguna as owner of the Marine Room, Laguna Beach Lodge and partners in Hotel Casa del Camino, K’ya Bistro, and Rooftop, has a significant presence in the community. 

Amy Amaradio close up

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Amy Amaradio

Now Amaradio is making her own mark as co-founder, along with Mercedes Lara, of Dear Mom, a conference for mothers of children with Down syndrome. It will be held on Saturday, March 9, from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. at the Festival of Arts (FOA). In June of 2018, Amaradio completed the formidable process of becoming a nonprofit. 

The Dear Mom website states the event is, “A dream birthed from a realization that friendship with another mom raising a child with Down syndrome is one of the strongest tools you’ll have in this journey.” 

As one can only imagine, the journey is an arduous one. 

Finding beauty in the unexpected

When Rocco was born, Amaradio says, “I felt broken. I didn’t know what to expect.” When she was pregnant with Rocco, Amaradio says she did the standard preliminary screenings, but didn’t do the more invasive amniocentesis. “We just never even thought about that. We had a typical 15-year-old daughter. We really never thought about it. Plus, we never would have considered terminating the pregnancy.”

Fortunately, they soon found the Early Intervention Program (EIP) through Laguna Beach’s Assistance League. It is the only program in the nation offering early intervention for developmentally delayed infants, prenatal to age one year. Rocco started the program when he was six weeks old and graduated on to the Intervention Center for Early Childhood (ICEC). 

EIP provides counseling to the parents as well. “It helped tremendously. It was such a blessing. They took us through a mourning process,” Amaradio says. “I don’t know where we’d be without them. EIP gave us hope and joy and the promise that everything would be okay. When it was over, we were ready to take on the world.”

Amy Amaradio with Rocco

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Amy and Rocco

That’s where she met future co-founder Mercedes Lara, who was attending with her daughter, and they soon became good friends. After Amaradio’s experiences at EIP and ICEC, she wanted to provide inspiration and connection to other mothers who have faced similar challenges.

The idea for the Dear Mom Conference sparked as the two women were on a flight to a four-day Texas retreat for moms of special needs children put on by Liz Plachta – 

the inspiration for Dear Mom. Rocco was three at the time.

An idea is born

On the trip, Amaradio and Lara envisioned a one-day event in which moms could connect with other moms about the delights and challenges of raising special needs children. This plan came to fruition at the first Dear Mom Conference at the Woman’s Club in March of 2018 with an attendance of 150. Later in the year, the second was held in Orem, Utah with a similar attendance. 

Amaradio says, “Mercedes and I are both visionaries with plenty of ideas. She handles the marketing and creativity, and I handle the business side.”

The Dear Mom website says, “Raising a child with Down syndrome, we want to know you. Because, we are you. We invite you dear mom, to embark on this journey with us. To pave new paths for seeking hope, finding your voice, and leaving your fears behind.”

Amy Amaradio with sign

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(L-R) Amy, Rocco, Gemma, Chris, and Alexis at Festival of Arts

Amaradio admits, “It’s a room full of women who all get each other. There’s never been a dry eye at the conferences. And there has been a lot of feedback from moms who say it changed their lives.”

With the continued focus of both inspiration and connection, this year they have put together a day of incredible speakers, panels, and a Q & A session, allowing time for mingling with other mothers. The schedule includes breakfast, lunch, and cocktails/appetizers provided by Chef Craig Connole of K’ya, who also donated his time to the event last year. There will be an after party at the Marine Room. 

Amaradio enlisted the help of friend and event producer Sophie Mae-Hogan to style the details. “We want to make it as special as possible for moms and create a beautiful space. Sometimes as moms, it’s difficult to put yourself first. Moms of special needs children struggle with self-care. They will also receive a gift.”

Amy Amaradio with Alexis

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Rocco and Alexis

The Festival of Arts venue is ideal for this function. Amaradio discovered that when the FOA renovated, a section was set aside for nonprofit events, and she further persuaded them to let her use the Junior Artists section for a display of works by 35 artists with Down syndrome. Laguna resident Jordan Neufeld will have a piece in the exhibit. The works of art will be up for sale with a percentage of the proceeds going to Dear Mom.

Amaradio says, “Why not art? FOA is all about art. It fits the character of the venue. It’s a chance for people with different abilities to be highlighted and showcase their work and talent.”

This year, the speakers will be: Liz Plachta (co-founder and executive director of Ruby’s Rainbow), Kelle Hampton (author of book Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected, A Memoir), Shauna Amick (director of Radio Ministries and Joni and Friends International Disability Center), and Sandi Ames (Child Advocate/Parent Mentor and Director Parents CAN). Amaradio says, “Sandi’s child was also on A&E Emmy winning docuseries Born this Way (Rocco was on season three and four) and is Rocco’s child advocate and mentor.”

Amy Amaradio with Chris

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Amy and Chris, her biggest cheerleader

Amaradio says of Hampton’s book Bloom, “We had similar experiences in that we both had surprise diagnoses. At the time, I didn’t know how I was going to do life. It was all unknown. Then I read her book, and it justified my feelings and that it was okay I felt that way. This is the first time we’re meeting. We’ve only been friends on Instagram. I can’t wait to give her a hug.”

Dear Mom has a considerable presence on social media, including a nice following on Facebook. On Instagram, @dearmomconference has over 4,000 followers and is home of #dearmomletters which offers moms all over the world the opportunity to connect and share via social media. The message is – “We’d love for you to share, from one mom to the next. Below leave a letter of encouragement, some hope, or empathy that we can share with more moms just like you.”

The Dear Mom Conference is very much a family affair for both Amaradio and Lara. Lara’s husband Andy does the branding and designed the logo. 

“Chris has been an incredible supporter. I’ve taken a lot of time from the family. This is the first time I’ve done something for me, and I really love it,” Amaradio says. “Even though Rocco is five, I still need the connection too. It makes me feel good to give back, I like it better than receiving.”

What the Amaradio-Keller Family is up to now

To say the Amaradio-Keller family is a busy one is a monumental understatement. Amaradio’s days are full and so are Rocco’s. He’s a happy pre-kindergartener in Miss Lana’s class at Top of the World Elementary School. Amaradio commends Irene White, the head of special education, and Rocco’s team of therapists and teachers. “We are so thankful and blessed the have them.”

Amy Amaradio family

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The Amaradio-Keller family is thriving

Added to the schedule is the possibility of Born This Way getting picked up for the fifth season. Since it’s a strong advocate for Down syndrome, the family would love to do another season.

And now the part about the horse, one of the angels in disguise that touched Rocco’s life. Once a week for the past two years, Rocco travels to J. F. Shea Center for Therapeutic Riding in San Juan Capistrano for hippotherapy (horseback riding as therapeutic treatment). 

Amaradio says, “Since he started, there’s been a great improvement in his strength. He loved it from the very first time he got on the horse. That day, I went back to the car and cried. It was magical.” 

A full schedule

Rocco also participates in the pre-competition section of Special Olympics Orange County until he’s eight years old and becomes a Young Athlete. Alexis and her boyfriend Anthony volunteer with the program. Former Mayor Kelly Boyd has been a donor of the organization.

From all accounts, the family is thriving. Rocco has a special bond with Alexis and Gemma, who he calls “Mema.” Alexis is “Cupcake.” Alexis is off to college in the fall, and Gemma will be starting pre-school at some point in the future and eventually will go to TOW. Amaradio says, “He’ll still have someone closer to his age to be buddies with.”

City of angels

Consistently threaded throughout Amaradio’s conversations about Dear Mom and her family are comments about how grateful she is to be in such a supportive and caring community.

“I feel so humbled to live here in Laguna,” she says. “All the love and encouragement is so amazing. I’m the luckiest mom in the world to have Rocco. I don’t grieve the life he didn’t have. He’s supposed to have the life he has, he’s living his best life.”

Rocco’s Instagram handle is @roccosradlife, and it appears to be his well-earned motto. Rocco’s rad life. It couldn’t be more true. 

For more information about the Dear Mom Conference, go to www.dearmomconference.com and follow on Instagram at @dearmomconference.