$1M lottery prize spent on fetal alcohol battle

‘Miracle’ needed as center’s funds run out

Tucson Citizen

July 29, 2008

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Some lottery winners spend their riches on mansions or exotic cars.

Tucsonan Teresa Kellerman changed the world.

The adoptive mom used her $1 million jackpot to found a center to help families like hers, struggling to raise children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

She started a Web site that helps a million visitors from around the globe each year understand about the brain damage that occurs in an unborn child when a pregnant woman drinks. Kellerman spreads the word every day on the importance of abstaining from alcohol if there is even a chance a woman could be pregnant.

And she has done it all in a low-key manner, avoiding publicity over her big lottery win.

"I felt like I was giving back to the state, since the lottery came from the state,'' Kellerman said. "It's been my passion to help families and raise awareness. And because I had the resources, I was able to make this happen.''

Her lottery money runs out this year.

Kellerman, 61, has received her 20th and final annual check. She worries that without that income, it will be difficult to continue helping families.

She is hoping for divine intervention, something that will allow her to continue her mission of helping women give birth to healthy babies.

"I have a little anxiety about the future,'' she said. "I want to continue to trust that I will have what I need when I need it to keep the center going.

"I need another miracle.''

Twenty years ago, Kellerman had lost nearly all faith.

As a young woman, she had a vision, one where she and her husband brought unwanted, disabled babies into a home filled with love.

"I have a belief that every child has a right to live in a healthy, loving, stable family - no matter what,'' she said.

She and her husband, who were living in Colorado, adopted two children.

Karie, now 33, has Prader-Willi syndrome. The rare genetic disorder results in developmental delays and an insatiable appetite. Those with Prader-Willi can become morbidly obese if food is not locked away.

John, now 31, has fetal alcohol syndrome. His birth mother, whom Kellerman believes probably had brain damage from prenatal exposure to alcohol herself, was unable to care for him.

The Kellermans, who moved to Tucson in 1979, completed their family the following year with biological son Chris, 27, who lives in Colorado.

But soon Teresa Kellerman felt her dream of providing her children with what they needed slip away.

In 1984, she and her husband divorced. The stay-at-home mom was going from 5 a.m. to midnight, working full time, barely making ends meet and without time to advocate for her children.

"I lost faith in God, in the world,'' Kellerman said. "My expectations had been dashed. I was married to a husband I thought would love me forever. When I ended up a single mom with three kids, I was devastated. I shook my fist and asked, 'Why me?' I took kids with two of the most difficult disabilities into our home and ended up without a husband to help me.''

They were dark years.

But Kellerman, who lived slightly above the poverty level, started playing the lottery. On March 11, 1989, she won.

She received her first annual installment of $50,000 - about $34,000 after taxes.

"It didn't feel real,'' she said. "Even holding that first check in my hand didn't feel real.''

She paid off her mortgage and quit her job.

"I've been very, very frugal. I buy used cars. I have the same furniture. I don't need luxuries.''

She thought her freedom would allow her to advocate for her children. But it turned into so much more.

Kellerman provides information and support to millions around the globe.

"Teresa is my lifeline,'' said Tucsonan Staci Thacker, who has guardianship of her 10-year-old granddaughter, Tatiana Filkin, who has brain damage from prenatal exposure to alcohol.

"Without Teresa, there would be so many lost parents and kids in the juvenile system and fewer people - doctors, nurses, schools - who understand what this is,'' Thacker said.

For 15 years, Kellerman has traveled throughout the U.S. and Canada, giving presentations on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (see box).

In 1994, she started a support group for families. In 1998, the state gave her an office, now called the Fetal Alcohol Resource Center. It is the only center Kellerman knows of its kind.

She used her lottery winnings to run the office and to occasionally help those in financial crisis.

Kellerman soon found the best way to help the greatest number of people was through the Internet. Her Web site, www.fasarizona.com, which she started in 1998, receives a million page views weekly and attracts a million unique visitors annually.

Two years ago, the Arizona Department of Economic Security's Division of Developmental Disabilities offered Kellerman a part-time job.

"That was like winning the lottery again. It was the second miracle, for the state to see the value in what I am doing.''

She travels throughout Arizona training state employees, social workers and families about FASD. She screens children and adults for the disorder.

"Only about 10 percent of individuals with FASD have symptoms that are easily recognized,'' she said. "Most have a normal IQ and appearance, but have sustained enough brain damage from the alcohol exposure to seriously interfere with the person's ability to function in life.

"These individuals are at high risk of having trouble in school, getting arrested, having behavioral health issues, substance abuse and other difficulties.''

Kellerman represents the division on the Task Force on Preventing Prenatal Exposure to Alcohol and Other Drugs. And she represents the state on the National Association of FASD State Coordinators and the SAMHSA FASD Center for Excellence.

She is involved in getting more information on FASD in medical textbooks and in home pregnancy kits.

Kellerman talks to girls, young women and others about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy.

"It's not enough to stop drinking after you find out you are pregnant,'' Kellerman tells them. "You have to stop drinking before you get pregnant.''

Her greatest hope is that she is reducing the number of babies born with brain damage.

"If there was one girl who was going to drink and have a baby with FAS and she didn't, it saved the state $1.4 million,'' she said.

Ric Zaharia, district program administrator for the Division of Developmental Disabilities, said Kellerman has reached thousands.

"Teresa has raised awareness in our system, which has 30,000 consumers and several thousand staff,'' Zaharia said.

Because of her trainings, staff can more readily identify FASD.

"Five or six years ago, we did not recognize these folks as they came through the doors,'' Zaharia said. "People would be seen as autistic or mentally retarded. Our folks now have a much better working knowledge of the issues.''

Kellerman's job is not in the state budget, but is paid for with discretionary funds. During lean economic times, those funds are at risk. Zaharia hopes the job will be protected from budget cuts.

"Everything is vulnerable in the budget process, but it will be a priority that will stay at the top of the list,'' he said.

Dr. Robert Erickson, the Holsclaw professor of human genetics and inherited diseases at the University of Arizona, called Kellerman's work "invaluable.''

When diseases are diagnosed in children, physicians can spend a brief amount of time helping families understand the issues, he said.

"When you have a chronic ailment without a specific therapy, the kind of thing Teresa provides is very, very important, not only for families, but for schools and the public,'' Erickson said. "I am delighted she's here in town.''

For her efforts, Kellerman was presented with the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome's excellence award May 14 in Washington, D.C.

"Teresa is one mom who really took the bull by the horns,'' said Kathleen Tavenner Mitchell, NOFAS vice president. "We're lucky to have her.''

The Kellermans stand in the carport of a central Tucson home, watching a storm blow through the neighborhood.

Kellerman is visiting John and Karie in their home. It was her dream for them to live as independently as possible.

Kellerman says she has always been her son's "external brain,'' protecting him from impulsivity and helping him make good decisions. One of her and John's greatest fears is that he, like many with FASD, could get arrested. Lack of impulse control has gotten him in trouble.

But for three years, John and Karie have lived together in a home that Kellerman rents for them. The state provides 24/7 staff to help keep them safe.

Aides take John to Desert Survivors Native Plant Nursery, where he has worked for eight years. Karie attends a day program. At home, they have round-the-clock supervision.

Kellerman has come to take John to rehearsal. John plays drums and Kellerman sings at the 9:30 a.m. Sunday service at St. Paul's United Methodist Church.

John knows Kellerman has made life better for him and so many others.

"She's a very good person,'' he said. "She has helped a lot of people by helping them not drink. She helps me be safe.''

He knows the future is not so bright for others with FASD. "They end up in jail or in trouble with the law or addicted or even killed,'' he said.

John does his part to warn people about the dangers of drinking in pregnancy. He spoke at an FAS conference for teens and young adults.

"Sometimes I function at the level of a 4-year-old,'' he told the audience. "Sometimes I function at the level of a 14-year-old. Sometimes I function at the level of a 24-year-old. I can never predict or control what level I'm going to function at. And that's very scary.''

Kellerman knows her son, like others in the state, will live under a permanent hangover.
But she is devoted to making their lives as rich as possible.
"It's been such a gift,'' Kellerman said of winning the lottery two decades ago.

"I've had the opportunity to give my kids what I promised them, the best opportunity at the life they deserved.''

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