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“A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dates all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.”

-Agatha Christie

If you’re a mother, then you know about this fire that burns in your heart for your children. And, hopefully, as a child, you were lucky enough to feel the warmth of this love from your mother.

Sometimes that motherly love has to burn harder and brighter to help guide a child, while also guiding those around her.

On this Mother’s Day weekend, we’re sharing the story of Dawn Silvia Oates, The Play Brigade, and how her little girl Harper helped to fuel that fire and open the door to a greater cause and quest for fulfillment.


Dawn and her husband Justin had a normal and happy life. But, Dawn, a marketing and corporate communications executive was becoming unfulfilled at work; she wanted to feel something, she wanted to make a contribution.

So, being resourceful, she found a career coach to guide her. That person ended up giving her advice much like one might find in a fortune cookie, “Marry your passions with your gifts.”

Without a doubt this was sage advice, but difficult to realize when you have yet to find your passion. When she pushed the coach on how to find her purpose, the answer was, “You will know your passion when you just can’t stop yourself from focusing on it.”

Her mother-in-law then told her she would understand the answer when she became a mom. Dawn, who at the time, was somewhat ambivalent toward becoming a mom, couldn’t imagine how being a mom might open her eyes to her life’s passion.

Those two statements would later sing like an overture to the future events.

Dawn did eventually become a mom after giving birth to healthy twins, Jack and Olivia.

Dawn, Jack, and Olivia

Dawn, Justin, and The Twins

When the twins were 9-months-old, Dawn decided it was time to go back to work. But, other than to interact with adults, her heart and mind were not excited about returning to the corporate world. She was still craving that illusive job satisfaction. Dawn started looking for day care anyhow, but the search quickly ended when she learned she was pregnant again.

Her second pregnancy was uneventful. When asked if they wanted to know the sex, Dawn and Justin both replied no. They loved surprises.

Dawn and Justin headed to Beth Israel for a routine scheduled C-Section. Dawn received anesthesia and was strapped down to the bed. The doctor made the incision and tugged open her skin to pull out the baby. But, immediately Dawn knew something was wrong. The room was silent. The baby didn’t cry.

Those few moments stretched on for an eternity. Standing next to her, gawking at whatever was happening on the other side of the c-section curtain, an anesthesiologist anxiously stroked Dawn’s hand, mostly to calm herself, not Dawn. This nervous rubbing from a medical expert told Dawn something was terribly wrong. There she was helplessly strapped to a table with her insides on the outside and she thought to herself, “My baby must be dead.” She was immobilized both physically and emotionally.

On the other side of curtain, doctors worked on resuscitating the little baby, seemingly in silence.

Justin, who may not have been in-tune to the potential horror, broke the silence and asked the doctors what was happening. The anesthesiologist quickly jumped in with a distraction technique and asked, “Doctor, is it a boy or a girl?”

Someone calmly answered, “Congratulations, you have a baby girl.”

And then somewhere within that slow motion time warp, little baby Harper cried. Dawn let out a sigh of relief. Things seemed like they might be okay. The doctors cleaned up Dawn and gave her little Harper. But, only for a moment. Very quickly, the medical team scooped up the tiny baby and told the Oates she had to go to the nursery. A doctor then asked Dawn and Justin if they could go somewhere private to talk.

Dawn’s gears changed and she switched from expectant mother to machine mode. She wanted facts. But, the fact was the doctors didn’t know what was wrong. They told the couple when Harper was born she showed signs of seizure-like movement. They assumed she had a brain injury and told the couple they needed to do tests. This was the first time in her life Dawn realized doctors don’t always have all of the answers. They started questioning her about her pregnancy. Was she at fault? One thing was clear, the infant wasn’t moving like a healthy child. She had been injured. Dawn, in her machine mode asked, “Where do we go from here?”

Well, after three months and no concrete answers, they went to Children’s Hospital. Doctors went through the differentials and stopped assuming Harper had lost oxygen at birth. What they saw was a bleed inside her spinal cord that went from the base of her cerebellum all the way down to her tailbone. It was a massive bruise indicative of a spinal cord injury. She was most likely going to be paralyzed.

But, when Harper was just a little infant, she sent her parents a message. She was lying on her back in her bassinet, hands by her side, not moving. When the couple looked at the little baby again, her hand was on her chest. Justin and Dawn, confused, moved her had back down to her side. Soon, her hand was back on her chest and they called in a nurse. Harper could move her arms. She was going to be paralyzed, she had an upper spinal cord injury, but she could move her arms. Perhaps she was signaling her parents a little bit of hope.

But, Dawn didn’t need encouragement. Remember that fire that burns within a mother’s heart for her children? It was starting to burn brightly in Dawn’s heart. She knew she had to think differently. The career goals over which she had pined were no longer relevant. Her goals now were to care for two healthy children and a “sick” child. At first, Dawn and Justin didn’t tell the twins about their new sister. They were so young, and it wasn’t clear if Harper would live or die.

But, Harper did come home. And as it turns out, managing a bedridden child and two healthy children is both mentally and physically exhausting. Even though she was no longer in the hospital a medical team circled around Harper like the hands on a clock. It was never ending, and in seeing her little girl lying in bed Dawn quickly realized this was no way to live.

Something had to change. Harper was starting to talk and smile. She wanted to engage with the world around her, yet she had never had a play date. This little girl deserved a childhood. In Dawn’s own words, “This is a child. Harper was not a house cat, but that was how she was being treated.”

Dawn took a simple step that would become the symbol of a much bigger movement. A simple joy of childhood is going to the playground. So, Dawn called the Brookline Park’s and Recreation Department and asked what they could do about adding a handicap swing. The answer was simple, “No problem.” One simple triumph, and Dawn’s gears were turning. Where do we go from here?

She knew they were renovating a local playground over the summer. So, Dawn got a meeting with the Parks and Recreation Department and asked how she could help to make it inclusive for all children. Unfortunately, the design was already done. But, they were designing another park and if Dawn could raise a million dollars, they could build an inclusive park.

Harper's First Wheelchair

With ease, Dawn raised $35,000. But, then the donating slowed. She realized it was harder than she thought it would be. By the time the park was funded and built, Harper would be too old to play in it. Dawn started to see into the future. She saw Harper growing from childhood, into a young lady, and then an adult. And through the progress of those years she would be isolated from the community. The swing wasn’t enough. Accomodating people with disabilities seemed to be an afterthought. And, when you consider the fact that 20% of Americans live with disabilities and that many of us within our lives will become disabled it is a great social injustice to cast aside those who are different. Dawn wanted her daughter to be able to play recreation and sports throughout her lifetime.

And so, that little red swing became a big symbol and Dawn’s passion was about to marry with her gifts.

Dawn had excellent communication skills, they are her gift. And now she was going to use them to disperse the important message that people with disabilities should be integrated into the community, not isolated. This was the birth of The Play Brigade, an organization founded by a mother who will crush down anything that stands in her daughter’s way.

The Play Brigade seeks to, “create inclusive play where everyone participates and everyone belongs.” They achieve this goal by engaging leadership within organizations and the community to think about diversity on a bigger level; to think about the responsibility to include those who are different. Next, the Play Brigade proves that people with disabilities can, want, and should be involved in all activities via really cool demo projects like dance competitions and a marathon team. Disabled people may do it differently, but they can do it! Lastly, The Play Brigade empowers people who do not have disabilities to become involved.

One example of “exclusion” is the Boston Marathon. Roughly, 30,000 bibs are handed out for the Boston Marathon. Out of that number, there are only 23 hand cycle spots. That is a shocking low number of .08%. Sure, there are arguments about safety, etc., but if someone qualifies within the criteria shouldn’t they be allowed to participate, at least more than less than 1%.

Dawn discovered this gross exclusion after helping a hand cyclist get into the marathon. And so, another great idea struck her, holding a race in Boston where all could participate. After some politicking, the city of Boston gave it to her. On October 14th, 2017, The Play Brigade will host a 5K all abilities road race within the city of Boston! The race will circle from Boston Common to Kenmore Square and back to the Common. Once the participants return to the park, they will find a “haunted neighborhood” that is allergy free, as well as easy for kids in wheelchairs to trick-or-treat. Yet, another simple right of childhood that can be near impossible for a disabled child. Awesome job Dawn!

But, it hasn’t ended there for Dawn. She’s done a couple of stints on Capital Hill. The first lobbying for the vote on Healthcare Reform and why it is so important to have insurance for all. She also helped to create a bill adapted from a NJ law to allow parents of medically fragile children the right to choose the nurse who provides care to that child in a school setting. She also hopes to help other communities duplicate the strategy and implementation of The Play Brigade.

And, if you’re wondering how Harper is doing, it seems like she’s inherited many of the qualities of her mother. At 5-years-old, of course she is aware of her differences, of course she wishes she could walk. But, she is also a little firecracker, whip smart, funny, and full of life. She loves to do the same things as other kids her age. She’s ridden a horse, skied, she goes swimming, and of course she has play dates. In fact, she is quite an inspiration to her peers, and why wouldn’t she be? Remember, she’s a lot like her mother.

Dawn asked us not to think of her as a supermom. Just like in our opening quote, she doesn’t give pity, nor does she want it. She’s just a regular mom who loves her children, and just like her mother-in-law told her she would, as a mother herself she now “gets it.”

So, where do we go from here? Who knows what career lies ahead of Dawn, maybe writing, maybe lobbying. Regardless, she can now step back and see the bigger picture, cut through the B.S., and see what really matters. She’s found the door to her passion; she feels the fire in her heart, something for which she had always longed. She owes that to her three little children who helped her see the world in a different light and who helped to ignite her mother’s love, a gift not only to them but to her as well.

Happy Mother’s Day Dawn. And by the way, you should own that “Supermom” title, because you deserve it!

Please consider making a donation to The Play Brigade this Mother’s Day.

Cheers and Happy Mother’s Day to all of you strong women making life better for your children.
The Haute Life

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