Jefferson Award Winner Finds New Career Helping Special Needs Children Learn

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Mitch Sigman (CBS)

Mitch Sigman (CBS)

DUBLIN (KPIX 5) – When your wife tells you she wants to start a school for special needs children in your house, what do you say? If you’re this week’s Jefferson Award winner, you do more than just say ‘yes.’

In a room of busy toddlers, Vashti Hill got a quick kiss from her son Colton as he hurried past. She said he’s recently transformed from a silent child to a sociable two-year-old.

“I never heard him say ‘Mommy’ or ‘Daddy’ ‘til last month,” she explained.

It’s something she credits to the School of Imagination and Happy Talkers in Dublin, where typically developing children learn alongside children with developmental delays.

Mitch Sigman co-founded the program with his wife Charlene, a speech pathologist and 2006 Jefferson Award winner.

“Never in a million years did I think this is what I’d spend my life doing,” Sigman said.

Charlene Sigman began to offer speech therapy for four special needs children in their Pleasanton house in 2001. But her husband had no idea that two years later, the nonprofit would explode to serving more than a hundred kids with developmental delays.

After a full day’s work in sports medicine, he’d come home to help Charlene tackle the growing pains.

“People would just come to our front door and say ‘Please help me. I don’t know what to do,’ Charlene Sigman remembered. “How could you say no? He helped me convert bedrooms and would work at night.”

“If we don’t give them someplace to have hope, there’s nowhere for them to go,” Mitch Sigman added.

Over the years, the school outgrew its space eight times, and each time Charlene said Mitch was the one who went out knocking on doors to find a new space.

“We would still be in this living room right here,” Charlene Sigman said, gesturing to an old photo, “If he wasn’t with us.”

Mitch Sigman took on the school’s financing, fundraising, grant-writing, networking, licensing – all the business decisions—so his wife could focus on the children. In 2006, he gave up sports medicine to join her full time at their school.

“It was a mission I couldn’t quit from. Plus my wife is very hard to say ‘no’ to,” he said with a laugh.

And neither the city nor community could say ‘no’ to Mitch. Together, the Sigmans built the school’s new building, a permanent home that now serves more than 400 students a week.

Today, Mitch Sigman trains an autism service dog, and organizes free screening and referrals for kids who may have developmental disabilities.

He said he’s grateful to help children reach their full potential, like Michael, Sloane Kraft’s son.

“Since we’ve found the school, the possibilities for Michael are endless,” Kraft said.

“When I see the difference it makes for these families, it’s all the confirmation I need that we’re doing the right thing,” Mitch Sigman said.

So for working behind the scenes to nurture special needs children, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Mitch Sigman.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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