The first time Izabela O’Brien heard the word “autism” applied to her oldest daughter, Alina, she dropped to her knees and wasn’t sure she’d get back up.
Alina was diagnosed in 2007 with Pervasive Developmental Disorder — Not Otherwise Specified, or PDD-NOS on the spectrum. It’s the kind of general diagnosis that children under age 3 might receive when they don’t hit all their biomedical markers, O’Brien says. She knew, however, where she and her family were headed. Two years later, Alina was diagnosed as autistic.
“I was overwhelmed,” O’Brien says. “It was a dark period in my life. …But my priest said, ‘Izabela, you are a warrior mother.’” So this warrior mom, sucker-punched by life, got up to fight not only for Alina but for children like her as well.
O’Brien is the founding director of The Fearless Angel Project, a 5-year-old Greenwich-based nonprofit that offers scholarships to underserved families with autistic children for intensive therapy and treatments. To mark its fifth anniversary, Fearless Angel will hold a particularly stylish fundraising dinner Sept. 28 at Greenwich Country Club. Guests are requested to dress in blue, silver and/or white to help create a “heavenly atmosphere” for a night of performances, a live auction and special appearances. Since its inception, Fearless Angel has funded 40 scholarships.
“For us, our unrelenting attitude to give Alina the best possible therapy has made all the difference,” O’Brien says. “We realize how fortunate we are to be able to afford this. Most families are not as fortunate.”
Most insurance does not cover swim, music and equine therapies as well as more extensive blood testing for allergies and applied behavior analysis, which O’Brien calls the “gold standard” in helping autistic youngsters develop life skills.
But Fearless Angel goes where others fear to tread. It provides scholarships for speech and music therapies as well as to Endeavor Therapeutic Horsemanship in Mount Kisco; the Center for Integrative Health in Wilton, where Dr. Nancy O’Hara cares for children with neurodevelopmental needs and chronic illnesses; and Stamford-based Swim Angelfish, which offers swimming therapy and lessons to children of all abilities, including those with special needs. (Autism greatly increases the risk of drowning.)
Largely as a result of intensive therapy and the discovery of her sensitivity to gluten and dairy, Alina, now 14, is a verbal, functioning teenager who has earned two gold medals in 100- and 200-meter speed skating and a gold medal in the swimming freestyle relay, all at the Special Olympics.
Her life, however, is no walk in the park. “She’s not always social,” O’Brien says. “She’s not always able to engage in reciprocal conversations. And she gets off topic.”
A year ago, Alina had her first epileptic seizure, which she now takes medication to prevent. Such challenges, however, have made their family stronger, O’Brien says. While 80 percent of marriages involving special needs children end in divorce, she says Alina’s autism has brought her and her husband — Dan, president of a global manufacturing corporation based in Illinois — closer together. It’s also made their younger daughters — Yvette, 13, and Ireland, 11 — more compassionate. Even their friends are helping out with fundraising lemonade stands and birthday parties.
As for the warrior mom, she has spread her angel wings as well. Born in Krakow and raised in Chicago with dual citizenship, O’Brien has been Mrs. Connecticut America twice (2015 and 17) and Mrs. Poland World 2018. The 43-year-old Mrs. America pageant, for married women ages 18 and up, has a new venture, Miss for America, for single, divorced and widowed women, O’Brien says.
She herself is now the owner and director of the Mrs. Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Vermont pageants. And while there are swimsuit and evening gown competitions, these are not your grandma’s beauty contests. The contestant’s platform is important, and O’Brien has used Mrs. America and Mrs. World to create a global audience for autism awareness and Fearless Angel. And that, she says, translates into good news for autistic children in need.
Or as O’Brien puts it: “We’re helping families in Westchester and Fairfield sleep a little better at night.”
When she calls with the good news that Fearless Angel has awarded them a scholarship, the recipients are often speechless.
“I cry every time I talk about it,” she says, her voice breaking but only for a moment.
“You have to have hope. There may never be a cure. But I’m going to do everything in my power to give Alina the best possible life.”
The “Dancing With the Angels” gala will be held from 6 to 11pm Sept. 28 at Greenwich Country Club. Izabela O’Brien’s co-chairwomen are Dianna Smith and Jennifer Seidel, also mothers with children on the autism spectrum. Single tickets are $395 and sponsorships are available. For more, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 203-970-2552.