Nadine Vogel is a mother on a mission. She is resolute, clever, and perfectly willing to throw punches for her children.
“My two daughters were born with special needs,” Vogel says. “My husband and I were shocked to find that there was no single advocacy organization or professional association to help us navigate the maze of legal, financial, and medical issues that would consume our lives. I learned quickly, as do most special-needs people’s family members, to put on boxing gloves every day and prepare myself to fight whomever I needed to in order to help my daughters.”
Vogel’s battle began in her backyard. One by one, she contacted every organization in her region that served the special-needs community — schools, government agencies, nonprofits, and more. She meticulously gathered data, filling a five-drawer filing cabinet with contact information, as well as federal and state laws that affected her daughters, and other children like them. Then she began to share.
Advocacy groups, government agencies, and overwhelmed parents learned about Vogel’s wealth of information and started asking her to speak. She began speaking to groups throughout the 50 states and responding to mountains of correspondence — feeling empowered, yet exhausted. She needed a hand.
“I thought I was just helping myself, but it turned out that I was helping the world,” says Vogel, who approached her employer, MetLife, with a gutsy proposal in 1997. Would the New York-based insurance agency join her fight for families with special needs? Could it establish a division to serve the financial, legal, and social issues of parents like her?
MetLife asked Vogel to draft a business plan that outlined why the financial-services institution should step up to assist a niche market with terribly complicated needs. She did, and, in 1998, MetLife officially tapped her to head MetDESK — the company’s new division of estate planning for special kids.
In less than four years, the division has grown from a handful of people to about 200 specialists serving thousands of families. In 2000, Vogel was recognized by Working Mother magazine as one of the “25 Mothers We Love.” And last year, the Association for Retarded Citizens endorsed MetDESK as the resource for families with special needs.
“We make people financially independent, but we also give them quality of life,” Vogel says. “Serving people with special needs is infinitely more difficult and complicated than serving the life-planning needs of a regular individual, and it entails countless services and issues, but we go about it the same way MetLife does — through education.”
The financial planners who work with MetDESK do not begin by asking new clients a traditional set of questions about their family needs and future plans. Instead, Vogel says, MetDESK specialists spend a great deal of time educating families about the laws and services that make their needs more complex than they probably ever imagined.
The education continues with advice and referrals regarding support resources, education advocates, nursing services, and community organizations that aim to serve children with special needs. These “extra” services fall outside the boundaries of traditional financial planning but prove necessary and invaluable for any family establishing a relationship with MetDESK, Vogel says.
“If we are promising to serve, we’d better know all there is to know,” she says. “It’s the specialists’ job to keep up with all of the changes in laws and services outside of our training programs.”
Vogel’s team must meet a rigorous set of requirements. MetDESK planners — 70% of whom are the parents, siblings, or close relatives of individuals with special needs — must demonstrate expertise in estate planning, have a history of volunteer work or serve on the board of a nonprofit organization, and be in business for at least three years before joining the network. Additionally, financial planners can have no more than two customers lodge complaints against them during their entire career.
It’s not surprising that Vogel calls finding the right talent for the job one of MetDESK’s most significant challenges.
“MetDESK specialists must fit a specific and demanding mold,” she explains. “Each case that comes in has very different issues than the next, and physical diagnoses only begin to scratch the surface of those issues. In addition to engaging in emotionally taxing and complex work, our specialists are expected to keep up with constantly changing laws and intense, ongoing training.”
In fact, each MetDESK specialist is required to hold an educational seminar in a nonprofit organization or company on a regular basis and to submit a tape to Vogel after each session. That way, the learning never stops. That information loop is invaluable to Thomas Burgasser, a special-needs parent and MetDESK specialist who attends “beneficial and motivating” training sessions twice a year to keep him informed of changing laws. “It is a privilege to be part of MetDESK,” he says.
“My idea was unprecedented,” says Vogel. “But I knew that with drive and determination, I could illustrate why a large financial-services institution should concentrate on a market that had been underserved — and make it work.”
Anni Layne Rodgers is the Fast Company senior Web editor. Cecilia Rothenberger is a former Fast Company Web writer.