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Virginia Beach mother, special-needs advocate named Armed Forces Insurance Navy Spouse of the Year

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By Alison Johnson, The Virginian Pilot

Parenting with a military lifestyle is hard. Parenting a special education student is hard, too. Add the two together, and the challenges can be overwhelming.

Michelle Norman, a Navy wife and mother of a 15-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy and multiple other disabilities, knows this firsthand. After years of fighting in schools and courts for what she considers the best educational plan for her child, the Virginia Beach resident has become a passionate advocate for other military families with special-needs kids.

Michelle Norman and her daughter Marisa, 15, at their home in Virginia Beach. (Courtesy of Amanda Manupella Photography)

For those efforts, Norman was named this spring as the 2019 Armed Forces Insurance Navy Spouse of the Year. Her selection out of more than 1,200 nominations nationwide shocked her, she says, but made her even more determined as a leader.

“It can take a huge toll on families just to give their child a chance to get a quality education and become an independent, productive member of society,” Norman says. “You can feel so alone in that process. When parents have given so much for our country, it is simply wrong.”

Lining up special education services is a complex task that can vary significantly by state, as military parents learn during repeated moves. Norman hopes to raise awareness of every family’s legal rights and, if they don’t agree with a proposed plan, their options for appeal.

Michelle Norman and with U.S. Navy Rear Admiral P. Gardner Howe at the 2019 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year Awards Dinner. (Courtesy of Armed Forces Insurance)

Among other reforms, she would like all military branches to hire special-education attorneys and advocates to serve as consultants for families, as the Marines has done. She also has lobbied for Congressional legislation to gather comprehensive data on military kids with special educational needs, such as graduation benchmarks and complaints against school districts.

In addition, Norman supports improvements to the military’s Exceptional Family Member Program — which helps families access needed medical and educational services — and better tracking of Federal Impact Aid dollars.

Locally, Norman is a co-founder of Parents for Free Appropriate Public Education, a support group that also raises special education issues to the General Assembly.

Michelle Norman speaks with Brian Alvarado, 2018 Armed Forces Insurance Navy Spouse of the Year, and Rear Admiral P. Gardner Howe, U.S. Navy at the 2019 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year Awards Dinner. (Courtesy of Armed Forces Insurance)

“She is not alone in her quest,” says Lori Simmons, chief marketing officer and vice president of marketing and corporate communications at Armed Forces Insurance. “Many spouses across the country are behind her and her mission to improve educational outcomes.”

Norman and her husband of 32 years, Navy Capt. Cassidy Norman, Prospective Commanding Officer of the USS Mount Whitney, have lived in Virginia Beach since 2014 after previous posts in Rhode Island and Northern Virginia.

A Texas native, Norman met her husband in a thermodynamics class at the University of Texas at Austin and worked as a petroleum and environmental engineer before her daughter, Marisa, and her son, Chace, 9, were born. Cassidy Norman is currently in a Major Command training track based out of Norfolk Naval Station and is on a 15-month deployment to Italy.

Michelle Norman has fought for Marisa since her daughter’s premature birth at just 27 weeks. The 2 pound, 3 ounce baby suffered a brain bleed that caused her cerebral palsy, which affected movement and balance on the right side of her body. She also needed a tracheostomy tube to breathe.

Marisa spent eight months at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters, where doctors feared she might never walk or talk. At age 1, she underwent reconstructive airway surgery at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where doctors used a piece of her rib to widen her breathing passages. They had to keep her paralyzed with medication for six days as she healed.

Today, Marisa’s challenges include hearing loss, nearsightedness, attention deficit disorder, anxiety and several learning disabilities. Yet the shy, soft-spoken teenager is flourishing as a rising freshman at a small private school, where she has formed close friendships and plays on a volleyball team after mastering the art of serving with one hand. Marisa also is on a local cheerleading squad for special-needs children and loves video games and music.

“She has been through so much, but she has come such a long way,” Michelle Norman says. “She is the sweetest, funniest girl.”

Armed Forces Insurance, which provides property and casualty insurance to military professionals, has run its Military Spouse of the Year program for nine years. Winners are chosen by a combination of popular vote and judging panels.

Norman was originally nominated by Jeremy Hilton, a Texas-based Navy veteran and Air Force spouse who also has a daughter with significant medical issues. Hilton was the 2012 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year, the first man so recognized.

On May 9, Norman attended an awards dinner with 2019 winners from the five other service branches. Holly Vega, a Florida-based Marine Corps wife who also advocates for educational causes, won the overall military spouse prize; Norman plans to join forces with her moving forward.

“I’m just honored to be able to be a voice for these kids,” she says. “Ultimately, helping them will help everybody because I know it’s not just military families who struggle to access the services they need. All of our kids deserve the best we can give them.”

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