While in college at Auburn University, Sara Nall studied international business and Spanish. But a career assessment test she took after graduation put her on a different path. Once she saw “special education” on the list of recommended fields of focus, she knew that was where she belonged. After getting a master’s in special education from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Sara went on to teach in special education for more than 25 years. In 2016 she became the Executive Director of Mitchell’s Place, which offers education, service, and support to children affected by autism in the Birmingham area. Because of Sara’s dedication to helping these children and their families, we’re excited to introduce her as our newest FACE of Birmingham.
What drew you to the field of special education?
My undergraduate degree at Auburn was in international business, and I minored in Spanish, but I got married right out of college and didn’t want to travel the world. So, I took a career inventory and when special education came up I saw it on the page and thought, “That’s what I need to do.” And here I am. It was meant to be. It’s a calling. I love what I do. I love everything about it. It’s what wakes me up every single day and motivates me.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
The children are the most rewarding. You get to see these children come in who are nonverbal, and after two or three years they’re saying, “My tummy hurts,” or even something as simple as, “Hi.” Often our children have meltdowns because they can’t communicate what they need. Watching the growth of these children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to communicate without the therapies we offer is really rewarding.
The other really rewarding thing is watching that pure joy of a parent hearing their child say “I love you” for the first time. It’s fabulous.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Probably the most challenging part of my job is not being able to serve everybody. I have a conversation every day about how we can serve the underserved, which is our next big mission.
Early intervention makes a difference with anything but particularly with autism. It can literally change the trajectory of a child’s life. It’s frustrating not to be able to offer this to everyone who needs it because it can make such a big difference.
What are some things you all are doing at Mitchell’s Place to reach out to underserved communities?
We have just opened a clinic in Southside. And we’ll be taking Medicaid there, and it’s also accessible by bus. Although we accept Medicaid at [our Overton Road location], it’s hard to access. We’re also doing a lot of consulting with schools that serve the underserved. We’ve been doing that through grants, so the schools don’t have to pay us.
What do you wish more people understood about autism?
Autism is a spectrum. You can have a nonverbal, cognitively low child all the way up to someone who scores a perfect score on the ACT, works at NASA or in Silicon Valley but just struggles with social skills, and then you have everything in between. And every single person is different.
I think the other thing that people misunderstand is it’s an invisible disorder. Our kids often look neurotypical, so when they have a meltdown in a grocery store people often think their behavior’s bad but what they don’t realize is they’re overstimulated – there’s too much noise or too much color. I think it’s misunderstood in so many ways, and families get isolated because of that. Other people think, “Oh, their child is just misbehaving,” when really they just can’t communicate what they need.
What words of encouragement do you usually offer to a mom who has just learned her child has autism?
Your child is special and beautiful in wonderful ways. Is it going to be easy? No. Can we do this? Yes. When you have a child on the spectrum there are so many things you have to learn, and it’s all new and it’s confusing.
Now, because of Facebook and other social media, there’s more community. Churches are much more accepting of families with children with autism than they used to be. So, find your community, find the resources you need, ask for help, and advocate for your child. It takes a village.
Tell us more about the staff at Mitchell’s Place.
They work really hard with these kids. We have small miracles here every day, and then they’ll turn into a big miracle when a child starts saying words. The staff here leads with love because their hearts are in it. Anybody in this arena is like that, and I’m so proud to be a part of a place where servant-hearted folks work.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I love hanging out with my grandson, exercising, hiking, listening to podcasts, and eating, of course.
What’s your favorite place to hike?
What podcasts do you enjoy?
Anything by Brené Brown.
What was one of your last best meals at a Birmingham area restaurant?
At Lé Fresca I had the risotto, but their fish is also really good.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
My mom always told me to lead with love. When you lead with love — even if the circumstances aren’t great — you know you led well. Hatton Smith once told me to lead by example. I’ve tried to incorporate those in my life and in the workplace. It’s a culture that we started here at Mitchell’s Place, and it’s been very effective because when you lead with love, your heart’s in the right place, and when you lead by example, then it’s easier for people to follow.
Other than faith, family, and friends, name three things you can’t live without.
Coffee, music, and Taco Mama.
Thank you, Sara! All photos courtesy of Mitchell’s Place.
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