If it weren’t for Kerri Eaker’s son, Dakota Kirkland, she would never have received the Jack B. Hefner Memorial Award for her disability rights advocacy work. In fact, as Eaker noted in her Nov. 2 acceptance speech, “Dakota has always proudly stated that he made his mama’s career.”
Eaker first got involved with advocacy in 1999, when her son was diagnosed with developmental and psychiatric disabilities at age 8. She spent years going to different doctors across North Carolina to find out what was affecting her child and finally found answers when she moved to Cleveland County.
As she continued her search for the support that her son needed, Eaker’s efforts drew the attention of the N.C. Commission for Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services, a division of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services; the commission asked Eaker to help launch its System of Care program.
From there, Eaker created a career as an advocate for those with disabilities. In 2000, she was asked to serve on the Cleveland County Children’s Collaborative. “In having us at the table helping to make the decisions on how the disability community was going to be served and supported — that’s the first time I felt that the system had been willing to listen to what families were saying,” Eaker says.
Eaker continued her work over the years. In 2012, she became a member of the N.C. Council on Developmental Disabilities; in 2020, she served as the organization’s chair. Two years later, the NCCDD selected her for the Jack B. Hefner Memorial Award, which recognizes family members or volunteers who advocate for a more inclusive, understanding and supportive local and state community for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Eaker ended her professional career this past year when she retired from her post as family support and outreach coordinator for Mission Health in Asheville, where she’d worked since 2009. Once more, Eaker attributes her final career decision to Dakota, as she intends to focus her time on her family and her son’s continued care.
Xpress sat down with Eaker to discuss how the award changes the way she looks at her work as well as the advice she’d give to those who would like to make a difference within their community.
Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Xpress: Talk to me about Dakota and how he helped form your views on disability advocacy.
Eaker: We’d been in and out of many different hospital settings, trying to get an understanding of how to support Dakota. I truly believe in my faith. I was praying and asking the Lord to help us and getting the feeling that I needed to do something with this. Really, how I came to everything was trying to get help for Dakota and not finding the help that I needed. I had to learn how to access services and support every step of the way.
Dakota has multiple disabilities: developmental disability, of course, but also mental health issues. And then he has a lot of physical challenges now because of medications and treatment that we’ve had to do. The medications we use to keep him functioning also affect his physical body. He’s been diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure, which are typically seen in those treatment plans.
How does this award change the way that you look at your work?
When I got into the field, I was just trying to help my son. Then I began to learn more and share that knowledge with other families, but it was all about serving others. I really feel serving others is what a person’s purpose often is. I felt so honored, but I knew that there were so many people that are deserving just as much or more than me when I received this award. It takes a village for all of us to be here. I didn’t get here by myself. It was all of us: the family and anybody who walked into our lives has had a part in me receiving this award
What would you see as your biggest success to this point?
We still have Dakota! He’s not in an institution. He’s living the best life he can in the community. He’s living in his own home. We’ve got a mortgage for both of us, so his name’s on there. Because he has N.C. Innovation Waiver services [a Medicaid program that serves those with intellectual disabilities who would otherwise live in intermediate care facilities], he’s able to have staff to support him during the day. He is on his own with the support that anyone in this situation would need to be able to live in the community. We’ve just been so blessed to have the support of our community to be able to make sure this happened for Dakota.
The other piece is that the system began to really hear what families said they needed. When we started in all of this, there were programs there, but they didn’t listen to the families and what they said they needed. It’s not just about the child in the treatment; it takes the whole family and the whole community to get involved and be a part of the process. The success was when the system began to look at the whole community and understand what it was going to take for us to make a difference for our loved ones.
And I really feel like this system is doing that, but there’s still so many families that are not being able to access the services and support that they need. There are 15,000 people still needing services in North Carolina. They are sitting on a waitlist to get services that I was so blessed to be able to get. You know, you feel so bad for the families that I know need that support. And we just can’t seem to figure out how to get everyone the kind of care and support that they need.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to make a difference?
Educate yourself. Get involved. Don’t assume that what you’re being told is all there is to the story. I feel like most people, when they hear a family has Social Security or Social Security Disability, think that’s enough funding and support for those families, but in reality, it’s not.