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Is this America's favorite mom?
Gainesville woman leads voting in NBC contest
Donna Aldridge spends time with her 20-month-old daughter, Julie, who has developmental delays, while her son, Ryan, 3, who is autistic, plays outside. - photo by ROBIN MICHENER NATHAN | The Times

No one ever said being a mom was easy. Donna Aldridge knows that.

Yet no one ever told her it could be so difficult - and rewarding.

Aldridge spent nearly every day of her first two years as a mother cleaning up vomit. Every time she and her husband, Keith, took their son, Ryan, to church, the playground or a restaurant, Ryan would become upset and vomit, Aldridge said.

"(Ryan) would flip out in social situations," the Gainesville woman said. "He would just scream and scream and scream."

Aldridge, the mother of an autistic son, Ryan, and a daughter, Julie, with developmental delays, used to be an attorney. Before she had children, she had an active social life. But since having children, Aldridge does not have time or energy for much socializing, not even with her own husband.

"We haven't been out on a date in four years. We can't," Aldridge said.

Starting every morning when she gets up at 4 a.m., Aldridge's life revolves around following a strict regimen for 3-year-old Ryan. His well-being depends upon routine.

It is Donna Aldridge's dedication to Ryan and Julie that caused her husband, Keith Aldridge, to nominate her for NBC's "America's Favorite Mom" contest.

"I try to tell her that she's doing a great job," Keith Aldridge said. "Sometimes you just feel like it's not getting through.

The contestants in the Web-based contest stand to win money for the number of votes they receive during the next two months. Fifteen semifinalists will appear on NBC's "Today" morning show during the week of May 5. Five finalists will appear on a prime-time NBC reality show May 11, the week before Mother's Day.

Aldridge currently has the most votes. If she is still America's Favorite Mom at the end of February, Aldridge will win $5,000.

Initially, Keith Aldridge secretly nominated his wife. He e-mailed all her friends and told them to vote for her daily so she could win the contest.

"Any money she received as a prize, she'd probably end up giving to Challenged Child and Friends..."

Keith Aldridge wrote to his wife's friends in the e-mail. Challenged Child is a preschool in Gainesville for children with disabilities. Both Aldridge children attend the school.

He was right. Once Donna Aldridge found out about her husband's secret plan, the only way she would consider staying in the contest was if she used it as a medium to raise awareness about autism.

Donna Aldridge says she believes God gave her an autistic child to ignite her passion for advocacy, and she does not believe there are enough advocates for autistic children or their families in the United States.

"I don't really think the emotional aspect of this (disorder) has been addressed," she said. "It erodes at your social connectedness."

She wants to use her nomination for America's Favorite Mom to get the word out about preschools like Challenged Child and Friends, which she says has done wonders for Ryan's development.

Keith Aldridge agrees. "Challenged child is probably the greatest thing that happened to us," he said.

Since Ryan has been at Challenged Child, he has started talking a little, he has become more sociable and he is learning to eat solid food, she said.

"I want to share what they have done," Donna Aldridge said. "I want to get on national television and shake this school and shout about it and say ‘This is your solution folks!'"

She said there should be more schools like Challenged Child across the United States to provide early intervention for autistic children and other children with special needs.

Any money she makes in the contest, she has pledged to give to the school that has provided a relief for her child and her family.

But the money is only a bonus. Donna Aldridge's main goal is to let other parents of autistic children know that there is relief.

"I want to put this in every major city in America," said Aldridge. "(Challenged Child) gives you family, they give you support."