Coco Sellman never thought the day would come.
On vacation in Costa Rica with her husband, Frank, last summer, she couldn’t help but crack a smile when her Blackberry started vibrating.
It was an email from her stepdaughter, Amelia, who wanted to know how the trip was going and when they would be back home. It was the first time that Amelia had ever sent an email on her own, marking a major milestone in the 11-year-old’s life.
Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at an early age, Amelia is like many of the 16 students who attend Standing Tall on West 69th Street and Riverside Drive. A year-round program for children ages 5 -15 with neuromotor disorders and severe physical disabilities, Standing Tall has offered a personalized approach to education and cognitive development since 1997.
And Coco Sellman is standing at the forefront of the school’s future.
In just two years as executive director of Standing Tall, she has helped double the student population. During that time the school has grown to include a new office at 89th St. and Columbus Avenue and hopes to move into new office space in Harlem this spring to expand to 20 students.
Sellman, initially involved with Standing Tall on a voluntary basis, worked unpaid as an executive while handling the school’s day-to-day operations for 12 months before she was hired.
“Coco does it all. If there’s a problem, we go to her. She’s a problem solver and a great communicator. She understands the kids and understands their needs,” said Tabitha Pease, a fellow Standing Tall employee.
Sellman hopes to find a 10,000-square-foot building for Standing Tall to call home by 2015. Currently scouting locations on 113th Street and Lennox Avenue, she also spends countless hours hosting and organizing fundraising events across the city.
One of those events, the “More for More” golf tournament in Old Saybrook, Conn., hauled in $80,000 for the school while the annual NYC Marathon raised another $75,000 with more than 30 sponsored runners.
Although the annual funds need of $250,000 for 2012 has already been met, Sellman refuses to settle for complacency. She recently set a goal for $2 million in fundraising over the next three years and is in the process of the launching a major gift campaign to help fund financial aid flexibility for parents.
“Our long-term perspective is to first understand that there are 1,500 students in New York City with similar disabilities and similar needs. And there are 1.5 million in this country. The need to grow is here, now,” Sellman said. “We have one lucky program, and have to do whatever is possible to have this available to more kids.”
Sellman hasn’t just given Standing Tall the legs to walk on its own. She’s given it a marathon to run, and win, over the next decade.
But it wouldn’t have been possible without Amelia, she says.
“Amelia is an amazingly bright, smart and fun person that most people don’t get to experience,” Sellman said. “As incredibly witty and smart as she is, I can’t imagine being in her body being unable to do the things she is unable to do. It just troubles me to know that people brush it off as such a small group. There are kids everywhere like this who people don’t pay a lot of attention to. It breaks my heart.”
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