Written By: Ronda Helton, Owner, The Travel Connection Group
To our readers:
It is with great joy and such an honor to be able to share The Helton Family’s Journey here with their fellow travel professional colleagues. I had the pleasure of meeting Ronda at GTM when she was expecting her sweet Emmaas you can see on the next page. Ronda (on the left) and my dear friend Kathryn Noval (on the right) were both looking pretty ready to deliver!
I began to follow Ronda and her husband Jim on social media enjoying their journey of the imminent arrival of Emma. Once she was born they began posting #dailydoseofemmahelton where they share pictures of Emma’s progress and amazing wardrobe for us all to enjoy. I think there are several of us who are addicted to these sweet pictures.
She also shares the challenges and ups and downs of parenting and working a more than full time business. Watching Ronda and Jim succeed in business and seeing them on their journey with their adorable son and daughter growing as a “travel family” has been very special. I am sure all of you will enjoy reading about their journey as much as I did. Thanks for sharing your lives with us Helton Family!
A puzzle is nothing more than small, individual pieces that work in unison to create a big picture. Each of those little puzzle pieces has a purpose, even when we question it. Putting together a puzzle is definitely a journey.
Puzzle pieces started falling into place back in November of 2017, when I was chosen to attend as a STAR participant during Cruise World in Fort Lauderdale. During this event, there were several training sessions to choose from but one caught my eye. I didn’t question why but felt compelled to attend besides the fact that many travelers could benefit from these services was reason enough. Upon completing the session and passing an exam, I became a Certified Accessible Travel Advocate by the Special Needs Group.
These puzzle pieces were being placed before me without even realizing what was about to take place to make this BIG picture complete. Just a few weeks after Cruise World, I received the biggest piece of the puzzle when I discovered that I was pregnant with Miss Emma.
Just like with any puzzle, there are pieces that make you mad and don’t make sense. You twist them and turn them to make them fit and yet, they don’t belong. Then, finally, that little piece finally finds its place in the picture and you look back and question why you didn’t figure it out earlier.
Jim and I were blessed with our son, Jack, back in 2007. After several years of struggling to have another child, we were shocked (as was our medical team) that suddenly at nearly 45 years of age, I was pregnant without medical intervention. As the early weeks of the pregnancy were taking place, we were informed of the great risks involved in carrying a child at this age. 1 in 15 babies born to mom’s in ‘this age bracket’ go on to have a baby born with Down Syndrome; 1 in 30 are born with this health issue or another and 1 in 100 have a heart defect …the information was overwhelming. Still, knowing the risks, we moved forward, just doing our best to process the news but to try and enjoy the fact that this miracle was now growing inside of me.
The phone call that changed our lives was simple and direct. “Your test results were negative on all trisomy’s except one. Trisomy 21 is showing positive and at your age, the calculations of this being a true positive are 99.6% that your baby girl will be born with Down Syndrome.”
At this point, Jim and I were twisting and turning our puzzle pieces to make it work or just to have this make the slightest bit of sense. After the haze of this news lifted, we stood back from our puzzle and realized that some changes had to be made in order to move forward. We decided that our puzzle needed to be simplified and some changes to our business model were going to have to be made as well. These changes have proven highly successful and given have given us the ample time to meet the needs of our busy family schedule, including that of Emma’s extensive therapy schedule. Emma was born on August 20, 2018, and came into this world screaming at the top of her lungs, already proving to her medical team that she was a strong little warrior and was ready to take on this world.
I started the agency back in the spring of 2014 based upon my love for the Hawaiian Islands and luxury travel. Over the years, my specialty and passion for the Hawaiian Islands has remained.
After the arrival of Emma, I was drawn into a new area of the travel industry. My heartstrings were being pulled. Everyone deserves to travel this beautiful world and by aligning myself with the right travel industry partners, I was able to launch into the market of Special Needs and Accessible Travel.
Special needs travel/accessible travel is one of the largest growing segments of the travel industry with bookings of approximately $13.5 Billion a year, according to Special Needs Group.
I then started searching for additional puzzle pieces that would fit into our puzzle. After attending a travel industry conference, I had the chance to hear Meredith Tekin speak. Meredith is the President of the International Board for Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. During Meredith’s speech, I immediately understood that this was of great importance in my mission to assist families with special needs of all kinds. Being a parent of a child with Down Syndrome, I was aware that there is often a dual diagnosis of Down Syndrome which includes being on the Autism Spectrum. This would be a natural addition for my certification and drive to help me find clients that need this attention to detail in planning around their needs. I have now successfully added the title of a Certified Autism Travel Professional (CATP) to my list of achievements with this program.
As more and more of these puzzle pieces fell into place, the next step was educating myself on resorts, cruise lines, airlines, theme parks and more on the services they offer to assist in the travelers needs. If clients needed a wheelchair or scooter upon arrival at an airport, cruise port or hotel, it was there for them. If clients wanted to take their child that is on the Autism Spectrum to a major theme park, I could assist in navigating systems to plan and prepare the family ahead of time in order to make it a much more enjoyable experience.
Jim and I have recently had a client where their needs were a bit more challenging but ultimately, they were met with each being addressed between the supplier and/or tour operator. An elderly father decided to take his adult children on a bucket list trip to China. The gentleman has mobility issues to the point that he requested a walker, wheelchair and an accessible van to escort them while traveling.
He was unsure of the level of his needs for each day but wanted to be prepared. The highlight of this trip was to see the Great Wall on the birthday of his late wife. He was tired from the lengthy flight and busy schedule but with the equipment on hand, along with two very strong sons, they were able to push him as far as they could in his wheelchair for him to experience this special moment that his wife had always wanted to have. Now, the family was able to remember and honor her, all while keeping the father comfortable and addressing his physical needs that day.
Another client we are working with has vision issues. She has always dreamed of visiting Rome and Florence. Although the client can still see, she needs a bit of assistance. We were able to speak to various tour guides, tour operators/suppliers and created the perfect trip for her, all while addressing her vision impairment from the moment she arrives at the airport to begin her journey.
I have developed strong relationships with key partners, otherwise known as more puzzle pieces, that include Beaches Resorts, Disney Parks, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, Sceptre, Cox and Kings and several others to trust that our clients needs are being met during their travels. Communicating with the suppliers is key to a successful trip. This ensures the clients that the tour operator is aware of their needs from beginning to end.
A friend shared a beautiful essay with me called “Welcome To Holland” by Emily Kingsley. This essay shares with us a journey of a bucket list trip to Italy but suddenly, the journey changes and you end up in Holland. Although you are disappointed in the fact that you are not in Italy, you eventually see the beauty that is unfolding before you while you are in your new destination. Just as when Jim and I were expecting our miracle baby only to be told that our journey would be taking a much different path. It’s still a wonderful journey for everyone watching Emma but it’s not the one that we had dreamed about or had even planned.