North Dakota mom's community store 'simplifying the journey' for parents of children with autism
West Fargo mother Meghan Dahnke is the woman behind Toadally Therapeutic Community Store, a marketplace for second-hand goods for children with autism. Inspired by her 7-year-old son Broden, Dahnke launched the business to help parents find affordable equipment. In the process, she and the store have become the mutual link between so many parents in the area.
WEST FARGO, N.D. — Meghan Dahnke has always had a touch of clairvoyance.
Before he was born in 2013, Dahnke knew that her now 7-year-old son Broden was going to be special. Four years later, Dahnke’s maternal hunch proved true when Broden was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. “He changed my life before I even knew it. I knew that he was going to have autism. I had a gut feeling that there was going to be something special about him,” she told The Forum. “Call it mother’s intuition, I knew this little boy was going to be different.”
The West Fargo mother of four has also always known she would one day become a business owner. “I knew I was going to end up being a business owner one day, I just didn’t know how,” she said.
What Dahnke could not have seen coming, however, was the way in which her son’s condition and her long-standing desire to own her own business would intersect. The coming together resulted in Toadally Therapeutic Community Store , an online marketplace for second-hand goods for children with autism. The store is named after Broden’s nickname, “Brody Toady,” which was inspired by the frog-like pose he uses to soothe himself. “The whole business idea just hit me like an epiphany three or four months ago and I just went for it,” Dahnke said.
Grasping for answers
While Toadally Therapeutic may have been inspired by a momentary flash of providence, the seeds of Dahnke’s unique business had been planted long prior.
Dahnke is well-versed in the struggles parents of children with autism face when they first receive the diagnosis. The diagnosis, she explained, only puts a name on the condition. “It was a difficult process because it’s a blind task,” she said of Broden’s diagnosis. “Nobody tells you what to do. You think after getting a diagnosis that you’re going to finally have the answers that are going to lead the way. It’s far from it.”
Autism cases vary from person to person, meaning each individual requires a tailored solution when it comes to therapeutic items. For that, Dahnke turned to Sanford, which offers what she described as a “library checkout” for equipment.
However, the long wait times for items, Dahnke said, made the process of finding answers time-consuming and frustrating. She can count hours spent in Sanford waiting rooms to get equipment, only to return home and find Broden hated something, like a weighted vest she once borrowed.
Inspired by that experience, Dahnke said Toadally Therapeutic will buy back any equipment a child doesn’t like to ensure parents can find the specific solution for their child without being tied down. “I just knew there was nothing like this in the community and I wanted to start something like this,” she said. “There are so many of us that are struggling and I just kind of wanted to pay it forward to that next mom that’s sitting in that waiting room.”
‘What are other families experiencing?’
Dahnke also has experience with the North Dakota Department of Human Services’ autism waivers , a program for which she said many parents have difficulty qualifying. The waivers provide funding for families to care for their children at home rather than at a specialized facility. Many families are not accepted for the program, Dahnke said, but she secured a waiver for Broden.
The waivers are hardly a cure-all, though, Dahnke said. She was recently denied funding to purchase tennis balls for Broden, which he throws back and forth with a chiropractor to develop his nervous system.
The state’s explanation for the denial was that the tennis balls could be manipulated or used for another purpose, Dahnke said. She also alleged the state did not initially allow her to appeal the decision, which she called “totally illegal.”
Her experience made her wonder what other parents have endured while trying to get supplies for their children. “If I can get denied for tennis balls, what are other families experiencing?” she asked.
It’s another one of the inspirations behind her decision to create Toadally Therapeutic. “What you think is going to be this great ‘a-ha’ solution is really a struggle,” she said, adding that she sometimes questioned whether or not the whole process was worth it.
Her hope is Toadally Therapeutic will help parents in a similar position overcome the initial obstacles when handling their child’s diagnosis. “The goal is just to simplify the journey for parents and try to help them overcome those first few hurdles when their child gets diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.”
On the hunt
Dahnke is always searching for a deal she can pass along to another family in need. The problem is, finding second-hand equipment for children with autism in the Red River Valley is a tall order.
It has meant several trips to the Twin Cities, where she has had more luck finding specialty goods. She also scrounges thrift stores and Facebook for bargains and things people don’t even know they have.
Her business is currently too small for wholesale operations, only adding to the challenge of sourcing stock. “It’s basically ‘What can I get my hands on, when I can get my hands on it, when I can find it,’” she explained.
Her goal is to bring in 20 new items a month, which translates to a lot of turning over rocks to find goods, and that’s just to keep up with demand. “It seems to fly out pretty quick,” she said.
She once trekked to St. Cloud to buy a tortoise shell vestibular therapy system. At only $60, it was a piece of specialized equipment she simply couldn’t pass up.
Knowing she may not see another one of her finds again makes it that much harder to turn down a good deal. “I’m only able to find one or two (of an item). I’m lucky if I find more than one,” she said. “It’s kind of like finding a diamond in the rough.”
Keeping her website up to date with all of her newfound inventory has been a tough task as well. Dahnke said the world of e-commerce has been a challenge, which is why she’d one day like to open her own brick-and-mortar store. She estimates devoting five hours per night on Toadally Therapeutic, and that’s after a full day's work either substitute teaching or working at Salon Centric.
Building a network
Toadally Therapeutic is as much an online marketplace as it is a way for parents of children with autism in the area to connect.
Dahnke said she’s learned a lot in just a few short months while working with other parents and therapists in the area. It helps that she can relate to the grocery store meltdowns or other trials parents face. “It’s heartwarming to have these individuals open up to me about their struggles,” she said. “It’s brought me closer to many different individuals and understanding that it’s not a one-size-fits-all (solution).”
She’s also more than willing to listen when a parent wants to blow off steam about troubles they’ve faced with their children. “I get to meet families and mothers with children on the spectrum,” she continued. “I’m like a big ear for them. They’re able to vent and I’m able to listen.”
That’s exactly the experience Chaffee, North Dakota, mother Wendy Morgan had when she first met Dahnke. Morgan had made her first purchase from Toadally Therapeutic and was planning to stop off at the Dahnke’s house for a brief pickup. “I pull up to her house and I think, ‘This is going to be 20 minutes, tops,’” Morgan recalled. “I think I was there for over three hours.”
The two hit it off immediately over their common bond, dishing on subjects like natural health care and the lack of services available for children with autism. “We were just in the driveway talking and we just connected on all these levels,” Morgan continued.
Dahnke is the mutual link between so many parents of children with autism, Morgan said. She’s a sounding board for ideas, therapies and experiences. It’s been a “judgement-free zone,” Morgan described. “It’s not a club anybody wants to be in, but if you’ve got to be in it, at least we’ve got some good people in our club,” Morgan concluded.
‘Absolutely a godsend’
Morgan’s now 10-year-old son Henry was diagnosed with autism at age two. Prior to his diagnosis, he didn’t make eye contact and didn’t speak, she said. The youngest of three, Henry had “lost everything.”
Since then, they’ve made incremental progress, with Morgan estimating that Henry can now speak at a 6-year-old level.
Before Toadally Therapeutic though, that progress came at a high cost. Equipment prices, Morgan found, would skyrocket simply because they were labeled for special needs children. “The things that we’re looking for really shouldn’t be as expensive as they are, but they get labeled for special needs or occupational therapy,” she said. “You have a mat you can get for gymnastics for $100 and now they’ve labeled it for kids with autism and now it’s $300.”
Shopping from Toadally Therapeutic though, Morgan can find items for Henry’s at-home occupational therapy gym at more reasonable prices. That included a crash pad she bought for around $100, well below it’s retail price between $350 and $450. “The work that she’s doing to bring affordable stuff into our community is really invaluable,” Morgan said.
"I see so many good things for it. I just need people to totally believe in what we’re doing and our mission."
— Meghan Dahnke, founder, Toadally Therapeutic Community Store
Dahnke said she’s been more than happy to help. She said the most gratifying aspect of the job is seeing people like Morgan say they have so much equipment they don’t even know what to do with it. It’s a welcome contrast to paying high retail prices in a desert for specialized goods.
Count Morgan among those hopeful that Toadally Therapeutic will be here to stay. “She’s absolutely a godsend,” Morgan said. “I just pray for her that this keeps on going and that other families — and there’s a lot of us out there — can utilize it.”
Dahnke has more work to do, though. She wants to grow the network and make sure parents know she’s always looking to buy equipment. “I would love to be a business that could say we’ve been with Fargo for 20 years,” she said.
She also hopes to one day work alongside Broden, running a brick-and-mortar store, crossing items off of parents’ wish lists, and helping the next generation of “club” members tackle those first few steps after a special needs diagnosis.
So while Meghan Dahnke has always known she’d have a special son and own a business, she now needs more people to know her story, too. “I see so many good things for it,” she concluded. “I just need people to totally believe in what we’re doing and our mission.”