Sara’s Story

Sara Spenelli now has the vital records she needs to move forward with her goals in life.

Sara Spenelli dreams of working with children one day, inspired by the child life specialists who have helped her along her journey to becoming an independent adult.

Sara, who was born with Turner syndrome, recently graduated from high school. Before she could pursue her education goals, however, she found herself in urgent need of housing when her mother had to move into senior living for health reasons.

To move forward with education or housing, she discovered that she needed to obtain accurate vital records such as a Social Security card, state ID and a birth certificate. Her situation was complicated by the fact that she was born in Tennessee and unofficially adopted at 18 months old. For years, she has used the last name of the woman who took her in, Shirley Spenelli.

Sara and Shirley hired an attorney to have her name legally changed, but then encountered difficulty obtaining a birth certificate from her state of birth. They didn’t know where to turn next or how to untangle their situation.

“It was hard,” Sara said.

That’s when they connected with Disability Network Southwest Michigan, a United Way partner agency funded as part of a strategy to help individuals and families with basic needs such as housing, food and clothing. Disability Network staff including Mary Fortney worked with the lawyer to correct a paperwork error and expedited the process to have a new birth certificate overnighted from Sara’s birth state.

“I didn’t know where to go, what to do,” said Shirley. “When Mary stepped in, it was like a big relief. It was more than I could do.”

Sara and Shirley continue to work with Disability Network as well as Michigan Rehabilitative Services in reaching Sara’s goals, which include housing, getting set up with Supplemental Security Income, attending Michigan Career and Technical Institute and possibly obtaining a driver’s license.

“It humbles me, when somebody’s working with MRS or any agency, just how overwhelming that whole process can become,” Mary said. “There are so many different entities involved. Where do you start?”

Now, Sara knows she’s not alone in navigating the systems she needs to be successful in life.

“I know where to go if I need help,” she said.

Her mother finds peace in that as well.

“It’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to Sara,” Shirley said. “I know that somebody can be here to help her when I’m gone. Somebody will be able to guide her in the things that she needs help with.”