In our second season, we’re highlighting the people behind the innovative ideas and concepts that continue to level up our industry through elevating the client experience.
In this episode, Mike LaMena speaks to Mike Delgass, Wealthspire Managing Director and Advisor, and Christine Lai, cofounder and Executive Director of Special Education Legal Fund (S.E.L.F.), a nonprofit organization in Connecticut dedicated to leveling the playing field for families in special education by providing information and resources to enable families in need to successfully advocate for their children in special education. Since 2018, S.E.L.F. has provided over $800,000 in grants for hundreds of families across 60+ school districts in Connecticut and Westchester County, New York.
Michael Delgass serves as Vice Chair on the S.E.L.F. Board of Directors, and Christine Lai, Executive Director and Co-Founder of S.E.L.F., is a current client of Wealthspire Advisors LLC (“Wealthspire”). Ms. Lai did not receive direct or indirect compensation from Wealthspire for her involvement in the production of this podcast episode. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast may not be representative, see more reviews and disclosures at www.wealthspire.com.
Please see Important Disclosure Information at the end of this presentation.
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Narrator: Welcome to Great Aspirations, Wealthspire Advisors’ podcast series on life, wellness, and financial advice. Each episode shares the experiences of extraordinary people whose stories inspire others to think big, find balance, and explore the possibilities of achieving health, wealth, and happiness. And now here’s your host, the CEO of Wealthspire Advisors, Michael LaMena.
Michael LaMena: Welcome to season two of Wealthspire’s podcast, Great Aspirations. This season, we’re highlighting the people behind the innovative ideas and concepts that continue to level up our industry by elevating the client experience. For episode six of season two, I have the distinct pleasure of having two esteemed guests, Mike Delgass and Christine Lai. Mike Delgass is a managing director and financial advisor at Wealthspire, who uses his extensive experience as an attorney with deep expertise in the trust in the state space to help his clients solve complex financial tax investment and other problems. Given his background, much of his work is with attorneys, as well as for clients with closely held businesses, corporate executives, and he also has a niche specialty in working with families that are dealing with special education, special needs issues. Mike also runs our Northeast Region, comprised of multiple offices in the Tri-State, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey region. Our second guest, Christine Lai, is the co-founder and executive director of the Special Education Legal Fund, a nonprofit organization in Connecticut dedicated to leveling the playing field for families in the special education space by providing information and resources to enable families in need to successfully advocate for their children in special education. Since 2018, S.E.L.F. has provided over $800,000 in grants for hundreds of families across 60-plus school districts in Connecticut and Westchester County, New York, providing access to both advocacy support and legal support for families in need with children in the special education system. I couldn’t be more excited for the conversation with Mike and Christine today. Thank you both for joining and looking forward to the conversation.
Mike Delgass: Thanks, Mike.
Christina Lai: Thank you.
Michael LaMena: So Wealthspire is very proud to partner with an organization like S.E.L.F., and many of our advisors focus on working with multi-generational families that often have intersected with special needs situations. It’s a topic that’s very close to many of us personally. So let’s start with you, Christine. You’re the co-founder and executive director of the Special Education Legal Fund. But prior to that, you were active in the hedge fund space and the investment banking space. How did you ultimately come to found and establish S.E.L.F.? What was the genesis behind this work that I know you’re so passionate about? Sure.
Christina Lai: I mean, obviously, I’m not an attorney or an educator, an advocate. I’m a retiring, or I guess a recovering hedge fund analyst. And prior to founding S.E.L.F., I really didn’t know actually, well, prior to having my son, I really didn’t know much about special education or really education in general. He was my first child, my oldest. And when he was born, it was pretty clear right away that he learned differently. I was still working at that point for a hedge fund headquartered in Dallas with offices in New York. And the prospect of doing what I needed to do for my son coupled with working at the time, I decided my son came first, that he was the priority. And fortunately, I had the ability to do that. So I stepped out of the investment world, the investment space to focus full time on what my son needed at the time and that’s really evolved over the course of the last 20 years, he’s 19 now, and just started his freshman year in college. But when when S.E.L.F. was conceived, it was really a 10 year process. He was born, we struggled as many families do, we struggled with the diagnosis, we struggled with resources, we struggled with trying to figure out exactly how to help him, and that encompasses many, many things which you guys are so amazing at providing families with support for.
But what really spoke to me during this process was the struggle that we went through in education and the struggle that we went through to make sure that his needs were met. I didn’t know anything about special education or the law, I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t like Google into the individuals with disabilities education act until I started S.E.L.F. which was sort of 10 years into my journey, which is really appalling that I give parents that advice today and I like manifestly didn’t follow it myself. But at the time I founded S.E.L.F. because we went through this process we struggled. We fortunately had the resources to support our struggle, we had the resources to have neuropsychs, hire advocates, hire attorneys, and more than that we also had the ability and the inclination to push when we felt that it was necessary to push. So at the end of that process. I mean it’s not the end, it’s never over. He’s 20 or 19, it’s not over. My husband and I were standing on the main street in our town, we had just left a meeting at the board of education, and my husband said to me, Why do you have that look on your face? Like this is good we have a positive outcome. Why do you look like that and I said yeah, it’s, it’s great but this is just going to happen to some other child whose family can’t do what we did whose family can’t push the way that we did.
Fast forward another kind of eight, nine years. And I really spent that time germinating this idea like what does it look like there really aren’t any organizations in the country that look like S.E.L.F. that provide the specific type of support that we do. So I didn’t have a model to work off of. So I was really just germinating this idea thinking about it, talking to people about it. And one of the people that I spoke to at the very beginning of the process was Mike. So Mike and I have known each other for a very long time. And in several different capacities at several different of your, of your homes going back to today, Pitney right, or was it dayberry was dayberry back then was dayberry than yeah, but right. So we, and knowing a little bit how his family’s journey intersected with mine, shared some similar characteristics, it became a natural topic of conversation. When I was doing this, that, hey, what do you think, what do you think about this idea. And that’s really how the partnership with Wealthspire began. And what’s and here we are kind of five years later.
Michael LaMena: So I love that personal experience, but then the ability to pull back the lens and say, wait a minute, I’m very fortunate to have the resources and the means and the background to advocate with focus. Other families probably don’t have that same benefit, and then to translate that into something actionable. So maybe shifting gears, Mike, I know you’ve been a driving force. For our partnership with S.E.L.F.. I know this is a space that also is very personally important to you. And you’ve helped us raise awareness for the importance of special education planning for families of means and families without the means to kind of navigate it. How did you and Christine first come together? And how did that ultimately lead to this partnership? It sounds like there were multiple intersection points and the fabric is kind of woven over over years, but maybe expand on that a little bit.
Mike Delgass: Yeah, I mean, so Christine, just to take you back a little bit, I think that’s over 20 years ago when we met each other, because that was before I joined Wealthspire because I’ve been here about 20 years.
Christina Lai: Definitely. Yeah. Yeah.
Mike Delgass: You know, I, as Christine said, I was at a law firm then I was a partner at a firm, those I called there, David Barry and Howard. It’s now they pity me. And I was doing a decent amount of special needs planning, because I was doing the multi generational work that you were referring to as a lawyer. I think some people don’t realize how prevalent disabilities are within the United States. You know, there’s, I think the CDC says about one in four, 27% or so of US adults have a disability. So if you have a multi generational family, the odds are that there’s going to be somebody of some shape or size that’s going to have some kind of a disability and some of those might be serious enough that they really warrant intensive planning and that kind of stuff. And I was doing that, I was fortunate to be with one of the pioneers in the Connecticut world and the legal world on special needs planning. I was acting as a guardian for disabled veterans because there was a VA hospital not too far away from one of the offices I had in Connecticut. So I had a decent amount of special needs planning experience and guardianships, acting as trustee, that kind of stuff. But it wasn’t until I was a parent of a special needs child or children I should say, and really was wrestling with the education system that I realized how difficult this process is for parents and what the special education system was really like. And I don’t know if you remember this Christine, but I think one of the things we bonded over is I was headed to, in Connecticut it’s called a PPT, it’s basically a meeting about your IEP or individualized education plan. And I showed you a meme that said IEP prep and it had a giant coffee cup and then IEP recovery with a giant wine glass on it. And you’re like, yeah, that sounds about right.
Christina Lai: And it was maybe reversed sometimes.
Mike Delgass: Yes, but you know, what Christine really did was expand that kind of concern about her kids into a concern about all kids and in particular kids in the area that she could really make a huge difference with. So we’ve been really pleased to work with S.E.L.F. right from the very beginning, try to help magnify the great work that Christine and her co-founder, Ulrika, have been doing. And it’s been great. I mean, we’ve had wonderful responses to webinars we’ve had, for instance, on special needs planning for children. We just had one recently, had hundreds of attendees. I think that’s going to be… that was our second annual one. I hope that will continue to happen on an annual basis at least. So it’s been a great partnership.
Michael LaMena: So maybe either of you could expand on that. So clearly there’s an educational element. There’s a grant element where you’re able to help families in need who have kids trying to navigate the complexity of the special needs space. Talk a little bit about where both of you are seeing the greatest impact because I know you’re working on multiple fronts, education, the actual giving people resources. And some of that is monetary and some of it is there’s an advocacy element. There’s a legal guidance element. Maybe expand on where you guys are seeing the largest impact from the partnership with S.E.L.F.
Christina Lai: Sure, I think that in the beginning, we really started the core of our organization is the legal assistance program, which is the program through which we provide grants for attorneys to families in need. It sounds kind of complicated, but it really isn’t – students in this country have the right to a free and appropriate public education. They have the right because of myriad laws that were passed to support this. Most notably the Individuals with Disabilities and Education act, they have the right to access the same curriculum that all children have, regardless of their ability. So whether that means a ramp into the school or assistive technology to access the curriculum, or a paraprofessional to support the child’s learning needs in the classroom. Those are all or it or there are mental health needs that need to be addressed for the child to be able to attend class. These are all things that fall under the umbrella of education in this country. And the interesting thing about the IDEA and also the Americans with Disabilities Act are these are laws that have to be affirmatively enforced by the parents, or by the people affected by those laws. So if the law is not in compliance for your child you can’t go to the police and report that your school is not in compliance on X, Y and Z.
The only way to enforce compliance is really through the legal system. And there’s a very structured legal system that’s meant to deal primarily or entirely with disputes between parents and schools. But to do that, to access those rights to advocate for your child, you have to have money because you have to have the ability to hire an attorney to make those claims in that case to the mediating authority. And that is an impossibility for families that are below the poverty line and, and you’ll find that special education impacts those families, even more than it does families of means. I’m not saying that it’s, but it’s certainly not equal. I can go there’s a lot of different reasons why lead types environmental concerns, etc. But those families do not have the ability to affirmatively assert their children’s rights. And that is where we come in, families come to us when their child’s education has been stymied or it’s stalled. And we give them money so that they can hire attorneys. And the success rate for that program has been tremendous. We have mentioned at the beginning of the program, we’ve, we’ve provided over over $800,000 in grants over the last five years, the bulk of those grants have been to attorneys. And those grants have yielded just under $10 million in educational improvements for the children over that period of time. And that is tuition reimbursement, transportation, compensatory education, better IEPs, better services, evaluations, all the things that are necessary for a kid to succeed.
Michael LaMena: So, Christine, those numbers are compelling. But when you think about those numbers translated to the impact that’s having on individual kids and their families.
Mike Delgass: I mean, that’s the difference between a kid learning to read or not, you know, having skills that will allow them to be a productive adult. I mean, that is a huge, huge impact in actual children’s lives. And I guess I would add one thing, Christine, that I think S.E.L.F. does a great job of also is, yes, you need the money to enforce your rights. You also need to know you have the rights.
If you don’t understand that you don’t know what you don’t know. I mean, that’s how parents start, is “I don’t know what to do. My child is not achieving in school the way I think they could.” Or “There’s something wrong. I don’t know what it is.” I mean, some people are just totally at sea. Some people know what the problem is, but don’t know what to do about it.
Christina Lai: Or how to ask.
Mike Delgass: Yeah, yeah. You know, or they ask, but they ask, assuming that it’s a gift if they get something back, as opposed to a right that they can enforce. And there’s a very big difference between those two things. And so understanding first that you have a right that you can enforce and then having the money to enforce it. Those two steps are really important. And those are two things I think S.E.L.F. does a great job at.
Michael LaMena: Yeah, I think that two pronged approach with educating people about what they should expect and how do you navigate it and then for people that don’t have the means to actually advocate for themselves and fight for what they want for their kids and what they deserve for their kids and should expect for their kids. Having funding to be able to do that two pronged strategy is fantastic. So, Mike, one of the things that we’ve talked about in this podcast series season two is all about elevating the client experience and I think we’ve learned a lot, you and I, during our careers that while there’s technical expertise relative to wealth management and the financial aspects of planning, planning itself, when you start to deal with individuals and families, it isn’t linear and it’s not just about wealth. It’s about the personal things that matter most to families. When you start to have families that are dealing with challenges relative to special needs, that transcends the idea of wealth management. Whether you have the resources, you don’t. It becomes personal to those individuals. What advice would you give families as they encounter situations where we’re dealing with some special needs issues, we’re not sure where to start, the resources to become educated, knowledgeable. Christine, you talked about basic things that today you take for granted that a decade and a half ago you didn’t necessarily know to go to resources. Maybe start with you, Mike, and then Christine can jump in. When families are confronted with that, what advice do you give them in terms of starting to understand what resources are available, where they can get support when dealing with challenges relative to special needs?
Mike Delgass: I ought to plug both of our websites and tell people to go there because they do think there is a wealth of resources, both on the Special Education Legal Fund website, spedlegalfund.org. Then Wealthspire, both of those sites have a lot of resources for special needs planning and special education planning. There is a lot more out there than there used to be for parents. There are national organizations like COPA and other parent and advocacy groups. Then there are more state-specific ones that will apply to the state that you’re in. The Department of Education for each state has resources on process, procedure, and things that are probably the first things you should read, but then you need to figure out, okay, those are the rules, but how do I navigate those? How can I get help navigating that? That’s the next step beyond that probably. I guess in terms of advice to clients or potential clients, every person, every kid is different. They are different all the time. That is, they’re changing all the time.
We’ve experienced this in our family. The things that you expect change from day to day, the things you’re planning around. Sometimes you get great surprises and you realize you’ve overplanned because some of the problems you thought were going to come down the road didn’t happen, which is a great surprise to have, but you need to have the flexibility now to unwind that overplan and make it fit to the circumstances. Sometimes there will be tragedies and other horrible accidents and other things that are bad surprises and you need to plan for those and be flexible too. I think the flexibility part is important. This is why we tell clients that financial planning is never done because life happens, life events continue to ebb and flow and change and you have to be responsive to that.
Michael LaMena: I think that’s it. It’s dynamic. It’s always changing and it’s innately human. We want to focus on, we’ll get to a number for retirement. It’s not that. This is about what matters most to families and irrespective of how many digits you have in your bank account. I think when it comes to the family and the people you love, the planning is so human and dynamic. I think there is some unique expertise relative to helping families navigate special needs situations, not only for education advocacy and making sure they get the fair and appropriate education that they all deserve, but also just multi-generational planning when there’s severe situations that people are dealing with. Christine, maybe you could give us some insight into the future for S.E.L.F. Obviously, you’re having a huge impact on the lives of kids and families. You’re doing fantastic work. When you think about the future, where is S.E.L.F. going? What are some of the goals you have for the organization? I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you take the impact you already have into the next level.
Christina Lai: I think for anyone who started a business or a non-profit just prior to COVID, there’s an element of gratitude for just being alive, for having weathered that period of time where of just tremendous and monumental disruption and then also dealing with the aftermath of COVID. That for us was something that obviously nobody expected what was going to happen. For us, we still continue to see the impact of COVID and what COVID has meant to our families. Our kids are kids who were delayed in terms of where they are in their educational journey. After COVID, they are more delayed than ever before. We’re also seeing families that, whereas five years ago, I would see a kid that has dyslexia, couldn’t read on the brink of high school. That is a terrible situation for that child to be in. Today, five years later, post COVID, we see that same child, but now that child has anxiety. They have depression. They’re very often coming off of a hospital stay or multiple hospital stays. The picture in terms of our providing support is different than it was five years ago. Mental health is much, much, much more of a piece that we are looking at in almost every case that we see. Out-of-district placements are something that we are looking at for almost every child that we see. Whereas five years ago, it was maybe one out of five. Most families wanted their children to stay in their public school district with a stronger IAP or better support or whatever. That’s not to say that families don’t want them to be in the public school district today, but the difficulties have been exacerbated so much that it’s not as possible anymore for a lot of kids. We have been greatly fortunate to have the impact that we’ve had. We have had that impact in thanks to our donors and our friends that have supported us, but also because of the partnership and support of the special education attorneys and advocates and schools that have been in partnership with us in this space over the last five years. This was not a slam dunk five years ago when the idea, when we first started talking about, this is an idea that we think will have an impact. As I said, it didn’t exist anywhere else. There was no other model for it.
This group of special education attorneys in Connecticut, New York, that they supported me and us and this idea is testament to our community’s belief in this right in these children and these kids. I think over the course, we would dearly love to expand our footprint not only in Connecticut, where right now we’ve had impact and probably a third of the school districts in the state, but also in New York, where we’re expanding in Westchester. We’re a small organization and we’re dynamic, so when we see a need, we’ve moved to meet that need. In the first couple of years, we determined that attorneys weren’t for everyone. There was a step where a special education advocate, not an attorney, would be a viable step for families. Attorneys are amazing. They have provided transformational benefits for our families, but once you let that cat out of the bag, there’s no way to stuff it back in. A lot of families can benefit with a half step. They brought on a special education advocate for a lot of school districts that’s not nearly as confrontational a response. That’s allowed us to help families not only learn, but maintain the collaborative relationship that they need to have with schools.
Then, as Mike has alluded to, just helping families know what they don’t know and expanding the outreach of that, which we’ve done in partnership with Wealthspire and with the schools and attorneys that work with us. What don’t you know and or what do you need? What don’t you know and how do you ask for that? Those are the three key things that are behind what we do for parents in the education space is trying to figure out what families need and how they go about asking for those things. It’s not as simple as it seems. I always say it to parents that you have to think about the school kind of like the DMV. There is a procedure and process to everything that you do. You would never show up at the DMV, go to the front door and ask the man at the front door, say, I need a driver’s license. You would never do that. You would never go to the DMV without your paperwork, your photo if you need it, all of the stuff that you need. Then you would go there and you’d stand in the line and then you go stand in another line.
Then you go stand in the third line. And that’s really the way that one of the first things we try to do with families is to kind of teach them or re-teach them that that’s the way that you need to interact with the school. The school is an entity and it has a procedure and you have to follow that procedure in order to have the best outcome for your child. That’s what we see for the future is really being able to expand that impact not only with the grant work that we do, but just in terms of our reach to families and helping families increase their understanding of how to help their child.
Michael LaMena: Mike, any thoughts from your perspective?
Mike Delgass: I think there’s always more that we do. I’d love to see us be in a position that is I’d love to see S.E.L.F. be in a position to think about additional legal changes, whether that’s lobbying or kind of appellate work in test cases that we might do down the road just to buttress the legal rights that parents have and to make clear who pays and how and that kind of stuff. But those come after making sure we can get the people funded that need to get funded for basic needs and stuff. So there’s a lot of work to do, but it’s all very good work. I think on the education side, that’s something that Wealthspire can really help with and do even more on. So I’d like to expand that. But in a lot of ways, that’s the most rewarding for me is the connections we make with individual clients and trying to help them through some of what can be the most stressful, most difficult parts of their lives.
Michael LaMena: And I think that has a ripple effect, right? You work with one family, get them to understand the system, how to navigate it, how to advocate, how to have success for their individual children. And then they’re evangelizing that narrative to others. And I think that’s where I spent seven years on a school board. So I’ve seen the process and the procedure and know how important this is for the students and for families. So I mean, the work you’re doing is clearly having a huge impact on the lives of individual students in the special needs space and the families that care about those individuals. So congratulations to you both on everything you have accomplished and a lot of enthusiasm for the future. We talked about the educational element. I know you referenced a few external websites, but specifically people wanting to learn more about S.E.L.F., maybe get involved or take advantage of those capabilities. You know, Christine, where should they go?
Christina Lai: So the first place I would say to go is to our website, which Michael alluded to earlier, which is www.spedlegalfund .org. And on our website, you’ll find a wealth of resources you can apply for a grant, start that process on the website. You can also view recordings of pretty much every webinar we’ve ever done, whether it is how to hire the right special education attorney, what’s the difference between an attorney and an advocate? The special needs planning with Wealthspire, dyslexia, special education schools, all of that is encompassed on our website as well. And we also have links to tips and tricks for families that are navigating the process on how to structure an IEP binder, things that are in the moment with what their particular challenge is. In terms of other resources for families, Mike also alluded to COPAA, which is the Council on Parent Attorneys and Advocates, COPAA.org. It is a national organization of parent-representing attorneys and advocates in the special education space. They’re a tremendous resource. They provide training and webinars for both advocates and attorneys and parents all over the country. In Connecticut itself there is special education equity for kids or SEEK, which is an organization of parents, attorneys, advocates that is really an advocacy arm in the state of Connecticut for the in this, for this topic and special education and and special education law. And then another, and then most more broadly, the, the website understood, understood.org is a great, great resource for families that are just starting the process and looking for stuff like how do I request a special education referral letter type of thing, and also really useful chunks of knowledge about different pieces of the special education journey. I highly, highly recommend that website.
It’s a great, great resource for families. And then within your own community, I would highly suggest that families connect with their local special education PTA. Most school districts will have, obviously they have a PTA, a parent teacher association or parent association. Many school districts have what’s called a SEPTA, which is a special education parent teacher association. And that is a great way for families to not only get connected with resources that are specific to their local community, but with other parents, which really is the most important part of your journey is connecting to other parents that have kids that are similar to yours and have a similar learning profile. Because those are the families that are going to really those are the families that you’re going to be holding your hand in 15 years. And that’s a really, really important resource to find, to go out and find your people. So that’s what I would suggest for families.
Michael LaMena: Yeah, Christine, I think that’s a great point. You don’t have to be on this journey alone. And there’s, there’s expertise, whether it’s S.E.L.F. or the other organizations you mentioned, finding that community that can help elevate your knowledge and just be your companions on this. And I think that’s within Wealthspire, or one of the things that’s really resonated with advisors like Mike and others is we take a comprehensive approach to planning, we go deep with families, what matters most to them. And when special needs is a part of that, you have to have unique expertise. But once you start to create that, it becomes a powerful resource for other situations and other families that are in similar situations. So look, I’m really proud of the work you guys are doing. I love the fact that we have this partnership and we’re in the early innings of seeing where we can take it. Thanks for spending some time with me today talking about you were both obviously elevating the experience for the clients we work with and the families that are able to take advantage of the educational information as well as the financial support for those that are in need and need that incremental backing. So great work. And I look forward to hopefully talking again in the future to hear additional updates on S.E.L.F. and the impact you’re having for individuals and families. So thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Narrator: Thanks for listening to this episode of Great Aspirations presented by Wealthspire advisors, a registered investment advisor and subsidiary company of NFP Corp. If you have feedback, including suggestions for future topics and guests, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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