When Mitch and Charlene Sigman first met in college in upstate New York, you can imagine their first conversation didn’t include, “Mitch, when we have a house in California someday, I dream of filling it with hundreds of kids!” You can kind of figure that would have sent her future husband running fast and far away!
However that conversation did start, it was quickly evident that the west- coast-bound duo would form an unstoppable team, with a rare and unparalleled mission to change lives. As for the house with all of those children? Well, that part did come true. In 2001, Charlene, an educator and speech language pathologist, opened her front door with the creation of Happy Talkers. While Mitch, Charlene, their two children and the family dog all moved into the master bedroom, every other room in the house was transformed into a full immersion center to treat children with everything from autism to speech and developmental delays. Within a few short months, everyone was knocking on their door, after hearing of her unique, one-on-one and group therapies.
Everyone remembers a decade ago when autism was fast becoming a mainstream word, cases were skyrocketing and it often took months for parents to merely see a doctor or caseworker for the first time. Whatever was in Charlene’s secret sauce, it was working! At Happy Talkers, there was no red tape, parents were raving and soon success stories of children who were told would never speak, were talking up storms. Charlene and her therapists were creating little miracles and unlocking the keys to a child’s future.
Flash forward to today. After outgrowing each and every physical building that housed their program, and there were seven of those, Charlene and Mitch now call a state-of-the-art, custom designed facility in Dublin home. To date, their School of Imagination and Happy Talkers programs have served more than 3,000 children and families, a number of whom drove hundreds of miles, yes, in a day, because no program like it existed anywhere else.
And the Sigmans have taken their work to the streets, offering free screenings to families who could neither afford them, or who like many others, have been caught in a system that frustratingly shuffles them through countless agencies for answers. Their outreach programs bring the entire system together, so that in one day, parents receive a roadmap for their child’s treatment.
With an ever-growing community of partners and supporters, their impact has garnered the attention of specialists and educators across the country. Microsoft, CBS, Stanford Autism Center, Palo Alto Medical Foundation and the area’s major medical groups have all gotten behind Mitch and Charlene’s initiatives. Dublin Mayor Janet Lockhart created a groundbreaking collaboration with the City of Dublin and local developers to create School of Imagination’s flagship campus. An accomplishment so profound, it was the cornerstone of the Dublin’s “All-American City Award” in 2011.
It’s no surprise that this education industry-pioneer has received continued recognition. Most notably, in 2006, Charlene was the recipient of a Jefferson Award for Excellence, a program started by the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, honoring those in the United States who exhibit extraordinary public and community service. In 2009, she was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame for her contributions to Education in Alameda County.
And through all of this, her right arm, Mitch, has been at her side. Realizing his wife’s lofty goals and ever growing dreams (like all good husbands should), he gave up a successful career in sports medicine and athletic training, to allow Charlene to dedicate her time to focus on those hundreds and soon, thousands of kids. Whether it was doing payroll or finalizing building plans for their new school, or driving students around in a colorful bus, Mitch will tell you this is a much more lucrative career than his first.
You often look back at those first days of courtship, never knowing what’s in store for you and the one you’re smitten with. For Charlene, she always knew.
She just had to get Mitch to California for a magical and life-changing ride!