Adiba Nelson wrote her first picture book for her daughter, after a fruitless weekend hunting for a book with characters like Emory.
No such luck.
"I think she had just turned 2, and I couldn't find any books that had a kid that had special needs or was in a wheelchair," Nelson says. "And the ones I did find talked about the disability and it was all about explaining the disability to other kids, and I said, 'That's not my kid. Yes, she has a disability, but that's not all she is.' ... It was also quite difficult finding books with a little black girl on the cover, being in Arizona."
So Nelson, 39, spent 10 minutes knocking out the first draft of "Meet ClaraBelle Blue" on her computer at work — a behavioral health social worker job that she did not love. She originally wrote the book for Emory, but eventually decided to share it with others. She self-published the book locally in 2013, launching her writing career.
Now she's in the process of rebranding and relaunching it, a process kickstarted when she met Stephen Duneier, a would-be investor and fellow TEDxTucson speaker from California earlier this year.
She already has a sequel in the works.
ClaraBelle Blue, like Emory, "loves to play duck-duck-goose in her wheelchair, and she's faster than everyone else because she's on wheels," Nelson says. "And she loves to play jump rope and help in class and play tricks on her mom. These are all things that my kid does. My kid is totally a prankster. It's ridiculous. She'll be 8 in May, and she's wicked smart."
Emory has bilateral schizencephaly, a really rare form of cerebral palsy that affects her "fine and gross motor development and also her speech/communication abilities," Nelson says. "But not her cognitive development."
Emory also has a mama bear who will do just about anything to inspire and support her kid, from table waiting to book writing to burlesque dancing. Anything.
Nelson attributes that fierceness to her own mother, who also knew what it was to raise a daughter alone in a world where even hard work wasn't always enough to keep your family from teetering into poverty.
"You always wonder whether your kids are listening or not," says Nelson's mother Idalia Alicea. "I saw her grow into womanhood and she kept facing everything that came her way with strength and kindness and above all faith that she was was going to make it. I always taught her that life is what you make it, and with that she found the strength to get through those obstacles."
Alicea remembers her daughter's childhood calm even as the two coped with Alicea's many health issues.
"I think that if Adiba hadn't experienced the things she did when I was raising her, and seeing me struggle and tap into every single bit of energy that I had to make sure we made it through, I don't know ... if she would have known to have that same courage and fight (for Emory)."
For Faith Clinkenbeard, Nelson's best friend since sixth grade, that persistence inspires her to go after her own goals.
"Her mother raised Adiba strong," Clinkenbeard says. The women still speak most mornings on the phone. "I think that's where Adiba got a lot of her strength but created her own as well. Obviously, Emory's disability has created some obstacles in Adiba's life, but the woman that raised her taught her to take no crap from anyone, so when doctors say, 'Your daughter won't do this or that' she goes against what they say, and Emory has risen to those challenges and beat them, and a lot of that has to do with the strength Adiba has ... and now she's passing that on to her daughter. She's not allowing Emory to just settle for the cards that she was dealt either."
It has been a journey.
These days, besides working on the ClaraBelle Blue series (which keeps her busy enough), Nelson is also co-authoring another book project with New Yorker Michelle Sanchez-Boyce that celebrates aging women.
She also says she's fundraising with Children's Clinics for adaptive bikes for children with special needs and a playground that is adaptive and accessible for all kiddos, including those with unique needs.
Oh, not to mention the whole blended family thing. Nelson married Scott Segal about two years ago, adding not just one man to her life, but three. Her life now includes glaring down piles of dirty dishes left behind by her 17- and 21-year-old stepsons.
She wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to begin her work — much of it related to making sure as many people as possible meet ClaraBelle Blue — and usually doesn't crawl into bed until midnight or so.
We're tired (and inspired) just hearing about it. Here's more from Adiba herself:
Why should kids meet ClaraBelle Blue?
"It's really the story of inclusion and an introduction to what special needs are on a very kid-friendly and kid-understandable level, but it also works to frame a kid with special needs as an average kid, a kid who wants to play and engage. And they may play a little bit differently than you, but they're still a kid and want to interact, and what drives that point home ... is at the end of the book it says, 'When the homework is done and the toys are put away, ClaraBelle Blue is most like you in that she needs her mommy's kisses and tuck-ins too.' And I think that's universal. I think any kid regardless of ability — cognitive, physical, emotional, anything — they need that love, and I think kids get that and say, 'Oh yeah. I need that, too. You are like me.'"
Tell us a bit about your childhood.
"My mom raised me in boarding houses and shelters and living with family and living on food stamps ... She really taught me that regardless of if the walls are falling down around you, you make that shit work. You pick up those sticks and glue it back together.
"I lived in New York when I was little. We moved to Tucson when I was 11. In the winters, it was hellish cold and there were times when we didn't have money for eggs or milk, but my mom wanted to send me to school with a hot breakfast, because that's what you do when you have kids. It is disgusting to say, but we would have cereal and Swiss Miss cocoa packets, and she would make hot cocoa with water and pour it over the cereal, and the Swiss Miss was sweet and it was hot and it kind of tasted like chocolate milk. So you have your hot breakfast and it's sweet and tastes like chocolate so that's a win."
What did your mom teach you?
"She taught me how to be a parent. Now that she's a grandparent, she's like, 'You don't need to be so strict.' And I'm like, 'Excuse me? Do you not remember how you were?' ... I think being her daughter has taught me how to be a mother to my daughter. Just in the sense that she never accepted anything less than she knew I was capable of, and she refused to let other people accept anything less of me, and I find myself doing that with my daughter."
"In the 80s, skin-tight acid wash jeans were all the rage, and I wanted a pair so bad, and all of my friends had pairs, and I really wanted them. And my mom was like, 'I don't have the money for them,' and I was like, 'What do you mean? They're only $30.' And she was like, 'Are you going to pay our light bill? Because part of our light bill is $30.' And I was like, 'I don't have it.' She said, 'You're going to have to earn the money and figure out how you're going to get them. You can put them on layaway or ask someone to buy them for you, but you're going to have to figure it out. You can do chores and earn $1 a week.' I was like, 'That's going to take a long time. By the time I get them, they'll be out of style.'
"So I had to figure out how I'm going to get these jeans I wanted so bad, so I started doing chores and I went and talked to the store and was like, 'Can I put them on layaway? I have $5 I can put down.' And little by little, I got my acid wash jeans at the tail end of fashion, but I had them. I think that has always kind of stuck with me. There's always a way to get what you want. You just have to be creative and figure out how to make it work for yourself."
On the single-mom struggle.
"So the job I was at when I wrote the book, I ended up losing a month later, as fate would have it, and I couldn't go back after that because my daughter's needs were increasing and she was having doctors' appointments three to four times a week, and no job is going to let you do that. So I worked a super duper part time job, six hours a week, and struggled my butt off ... maybe less than a year. Then I went to work at a restaurant ... but my daughter was in childcare from 7 a.m. to 6 at night and was not having it, so I left the restaurant and went to work at her childcare center 15 hours a week ... and did their social media for 10 hours a week ... It was two jobs, my daughter's social security — she got survivor benefits because her dad had passed — and food stamps, and that's how we were making it. And there were definitely times were I was like, 'We're not going to make it.'
"In 2012, I really thought I would have to give her up for adoption ... I was sitting on the couch and she was asleep next to me and I was bawling my eyes out because I had like 30 cent in my account. The book was being illustrated ... I looked up the number of Casa de los Niños ... and I had the number in my phone and cried and cried and cried, and I looked at my daughter and said, 'I can't.' I kept hearing my mom saying , 'Life is what you make of it.' ... I thought, 'This can't be it. My story does not end here. I've come way too far. I've come over everything I've experienced in life. I know too much. I know what my purpose is. I can't give up. I may not be able to give her much now, but she'll never remember this and I love her.' ... And I just decided we were going to make it somehow."
On the time she did an almost-nude photo shoot.
"Jes Baker did that (Expose: Shedding Light on Collective Beauty) in 2014 ... and I was kind of coming into my own body positivity ... A friend put me in touch with Jes ... and my husband was amazingly cool with it. I was so nervous. I was like, 'So, like, babe, there is this shoot I want to do.' And he's like, 'What's it about?' And I'm like, 'It's about women.' And he's like, 'What about women?' And I'm like, 'Our bodies and stuff and why we love them.' And he's like, 'Okay, that's cool.' And I'm like, 'Well, um, well, I might kind of be a little bit naked.' And he's like, 'A little bit or a lot a bit?' And I'm like, 'I'll have panties on.' And he says, 'All right.'" ... And so in that photo shoot, I loved it and became friends with Jes and Liora K and started doing more photo campaigns with them and that launched me into doing more writing."
And that one time you got an email from Arianna.
"I had a friend put me in touch with Arianna Huffington. The Arianna Huffington. And it was the craziest thing. I was on the phone with Tucson Electric, and I kid you not, I'm arguing with them about my bill and looking at my computer and see this thing pop up ... and in the email line it just says 'From Arianna.' And my first thought was, 'Why is Ariana Grande emailing me?' ... And then I opened it up and was like, 'That's not Ariana Grande at all. What the hell?' She's like, "We like your writing and would love for you to be one of our bloggers.' ... It was pretty wild, and that's how that started, and that obviously opened other doors."
How does burlesque fit in?
"A friend of mine was doing Black Cherry's Burlesque for the Soul and invited me to see her showcase, and I went and loved it and decided to sign up for the course because it was the last step in my body love journey, although there really is no last step in that journey. It was like if I was going to talk the talk, I really had to walk the walk, not just for me, but for my kid, because we both have bodies that aren't stereotypical mainstream. Her body doesn't do what it's supposed to do all the time, and she has scoliosis and one leg is longer than the other ... and I don't fit. I'm not blonde hair, blue eyes, six-foot-tall, thigh gap, straight teeth. I'm not anything you would see on the cover of 'Cosmopolitan,' but I'm here and I exist and there are other women like me that exist ... I'm not saying that just our bodies make us sexy, but it's okay to say my body is sexy or my body is desirable ... That's why I did it, for myself and other women and for my kid, because she can see her mom that doesn't look like anyone on a magazine get up on stage a month a month and literally just be burning it down ... and she knows, 'Yeah. I can do that too. My body is okay, too.'"
What do you want women to know?
"Do it. Whatever it is. Whatever it is that someone told you you couldn't do or shouldn't do, but you know in your heart you're capable of it, or even if you're not sure but think you might be, do it. Regardless of anything. Figure out a way to make it happen ... The other message would be for women as a whole: Don't believe all the media hype about who you're supposed to be or what you're supposed to be or how you're supposed to be. Just do you, and let the chips fall where they may, because at the end of the day, you know you lived a good life and did some good in the world."
I'm on a mission to _____________________.
Change the world or die trying.
What's your astrology sign? Does it fit you?
Scorpio, and eerily, yes ... even more so the older I get.
Describe yourself in three words...
Smart, awkward, witty.
Your first-ever job?
Artist apprentice with about 10 other teenagers. We installed art installations around the city, with the most prominent being the mosaic murals in the crosswalk on Speedway (in front of Whole Foods).
How long have you lived in Tucson?
30 years with some breaks in the middle.
Who and/or what inspires you?
Beyonce inspires me daily, and anyone that I see achieving their goals...it makes me pretty emotional, and pushes me to work harder.
The secret to coping with stress is ________________.
WINE (or gin).
Your favorite Tucson spot?
The top of Campbell Road. Been heading there since high school whenever I need to think.
What are your favorite three songs and why?
"Golden" by Jill Scott because that's how I live my life, "Freedom" by Beyonce because it gets me into pure HUSTLE mode, "Rearviewmirror" by Pearl Jam - it is perfect for when I need to get some angst out...it's great for boxing (for me at least).
Your go-to order at your favorite Tucson restaurant?
At Contigo it's elote followed by moqueca WITHOUT seafood, and at Prep & Pastry it's the Morning Prep Omelette with Carmelized Onions added...nomnomnom.
What's your favorite Tucson-only thing?
Piña colada Eegee's.
You know you're a Tucsonan when _____________.
You hear yourself say, "Man, I wish it would just go back down to 100 degrees."
What constitutes your morning getting-ready routine and how long does it take?
Wash face, brush teeth, moisturize, get dressed, make coffee, eat breakfast - 20 min.
Favorite app at the moment?
Basecamp - it keeps me on top of my to do lists for various projects.
Give us a two-sentence pep talk.
It doesn't matter if you're in your lane. If you're not moving forward, someone WILL come along and pass you up.
What would you tell your teenage self?
Pay attention and always trust your gut.
What's a quality you got from your mama?
My need to be thorough in all things. Sometimes it keeps me up all night because I won't go to sleep until something is perfect - especially if my name is attached to it.
And one you hope to pass on to the next generation?
The ability and desire to always work to their full potential.
The last great book you read?
You Can't Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson.
The last great movie you watched?
Great?? Geez... I can't even tell you...I mostly see kid movies these days.
People would be surprised to hear you're actually a(n) ______________ expert.
I am an expert mac n cheese maker. I'm not kidding.
Is there something you've always wanted to learn, but haven't had the time?
French...and ballroom dance.
Anything you've always wondered about Tucson?
Why the city has such an aversion to SIDEWALKS.
Favorite ice cream flavor?
Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby, and no, I don't share.
Where can our readers follow you on social media?
Is there something you REALLY nerd out about?
Record stores and music instrument shops....one of these days I'm going to take up the trumpet again.
What's your spirit animal?
Which fictional character (from TV, movies, books, etc.) just gets you?
Mary Jane Paul (TV show "Being Mary Jane)
What makes you feel the most confident?
The best piece of advice you ever received?
In all things, trust your gut.