Editor's note, April 6, 2012: Huffington Post has chosen to feature this story as today's Huffington Post Greatest Person of the Day. To see other people from around the country who have been selected for this honor, visit here. Congratulations to the whole Higgins family.
Ten years ago this August, Brian Higgins, then 9 years old, died. He had contracted meningitis when he was 3 weeks old, and he suffered from developmental and respiratory problems for the rest of his life.
Since his death, Brian's family has been on a mission to help other kids with special needs and their families. They've bought children medical equipment that insurance won't cover; they've helped build a tot lot designed for kids in wheelchairs; they've paid for respite care so parents of special needs kids can have a night off.
"Debby never says no," said Mary DiGuardia, assistant director of special education in the Somerville public school system, speaking about Brian's mom's efforts to help families with special needs kids.
Debby Higgins, who also works in the special education department—a career path she chose based on her experience with Brian—said they'll help "anyone who needs something," whether it stems from "small disability to huge."
It's all done through the Brian Higgins Foundation, which passed a milestone on March 22 when it hosted its 10th trivia night, the foundation's annual fundraiser, at Tufts University.
About 800 people attended the trivia night this year, and the event has gotten so big the Higgins family needs to hold it in the gym (they used to hold it at Good Time Emporium before it closed). The event typically raises about $30,000 for the foundation, all in one night, Debby said.
A foundation in Brian's memory funding tangible, local causes
With the money it's raised, the Brian Higgins Foundation has made donations to the Special Olympics of Massachusetts, the Make a Wish Foundation and the Federation for Children with Special Needs, according to the foundation's website.
They especially like to help out right here in Somerville, perhaps because both Debby Higgins and her husband, Steve, come from families that have lived in the city for generations.
DiGuardia remembers one of the Higgins' first projects. "She"—Debby—"started out giving us car seats," DiGuardia said, explaining that many children with special needs require car seats to take the bus to school.
It's often the little things, like car seats, that can make a big difference in the life of a child who has a disability—the ability to go to school, for instance. "She never hesitates to do that," said DiGuardia about Debby's desire to help such kids.
One of the foundation's biggest projects was helping construct a tot lot at the Kennedy School, which has a program for kids with disabilities. The playground was inaccessible to kids in the program, DiGuardia explained, so they built a special playground with wheelchair ramps and paths and special features, such as prisms, that please kids with mental disabilities. It's a joy to watch the kids play in the playground, DiGruardia said.
It's called the Brian Higgins Tot Lot.
Each year the Higgins Foundation gives out between two and four $1,000 scholarships to high school seniors at who are entering the professions of occupational therapy, vision therapy and related fields, Debby said.
They support the Best Buddies program at the high school, which helps foster friendships for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and they support things like little league and youth soccer.
"People contact us who need help, and if we're able to do it, we do it," said Debby.
10 years of trivia night
The annual trivia night draws a "who's who" of Somerville residents, Debby said, and in many ways it's like a big reunion.
"We can't do what we do without the help of the Somerville community," she said. "The Somerville community is part of the Brian Higgins Foundation."
Granted, during the trivia competition, "everyone pulls out their smart phones. There's serious cheating going on," Debby said, laughing, especially since "some of the questions come from our kids' homework."
Brian's siblings, Kyle and Shannon, are 17 and 13 years old, respectively.
More important for Debby, the trivia night is "an amazing tribute to Brian," she said.
Debby Higgins expects the Brian Higgins Foundation, and the memory of her son, to carry on strong into the next 10 years as well.
DiGuardia noted the inscription on the Brian Higgins Tot Lot sign. It reads, "A special boy whose smile was contagious." Bringing smiles to other kids with disabilities is part of Brian's legacy.