When Donna Speigel sees a personal need, she meets it. She opened her first Snooty Fox store in 1980 after she tried to sell some of her own gently used maternity clothes and was dismayed by the quality of consignment stores in the area. “I told Dennis (Speigel, her husband and theme park guru) I should start my own business, and he said, ‘Why don’t you?’” Speigel recalls. Since then, she has built up The Snooty Fox to include 12 clothing and furniture stores earning more than $4 million in annual sales from high-end consignments.

Years later, the couple found themselves raising their grandson, Dayton, who has cerebral palsy. Speigel recognized another need: a school for children such as Dayton. She discovered the Conductive Learning Center in Grand Rapids, Mich., and for more than a year she traveled there with her grandson, who is now 5. The center uses methods developed by Dr. Andras Peto in Hungary to instill independence in children facing motor challenges resulting from neurological damage.

“Dr. Peto believed that children with cerebral palsy deserve to be all that they can be, and that motor challenges can be worked on just like the ABCs — in a group setting as students, not patients,” Speigel explains. “At 22 months old, I had a little guy who did not move when I first took him to Michigan. Then he rolled over. Then he sat up. We saw such great progress.”

Speigel chanced upon conductive learning during a 60 Minutes segment on Peto’s methods. She learned that parents or grandparents have started almost every conductive learning center in this country, which now total about 30. “I said to Dennis, ‘We could do this in Cincinnati, we could make it happen.’”

With help from business and personal connections, Speigel opened the non-profit Conductive Learning Center of Greater Cincinnati in September 2006. Bill Butler of Corporex helped locate a Covington building which the owner, St. Elizabeth Medical Center, donated for two years of use. She then worked to get more than $80,000 worth of remodeling donations. The father of one student built the specialized furniture. A young man offered his carpentry skills to earn an Eagle Scout badge. Now the center’s sunny rooms, painted in crayon-bright colors, “feel like a second home,” says parent Monica Lee.

Lee signed up her 5-year-old daughter Morgan, who has cerebral palsy, for the first session. “We cried so many tears when we saw all the daily life activities they were teaching our daughter, and, more importantly, she was embracing them,” Lee says. “You could tell she knew she was a part of something special because she finally fit in. She was no longer an outsider looking at what other kids could do. She was accomplishing goals with other kids who also have special needs.”

Currently the Conductive Learning Center here serves 12 students. There’s a full-time “conductor,” Judit Tirkalane (originally from Hungary’s Peto Institute), a special education teacher from Northern Kentucky University, two full-time aides and numerous volunteers. Four-week sessions, offered to children from six months to six years, last three to five hours a day, for three to five days a week, and cost up to $1,800. Speigel hopes to expand the offerings and make sessions more affordable. She’s being advised by her mentor, Patti Herbst, the founder and executive director of the Center for Independence through Conductive Education in Countryside, Ill.

“The biggest challenge is that most conductive education centers are run by devoted parents who often have little business experience,” Herbst observes. She started her center for her son, Justin, who has spastic cerebral palsy. He is now 20 and attending Southern Illinois University on his own.

“As a CPA, Patti knows how to play it the way it pays, which is insurance,” Speigel says. Conductive learning isn’t covered by insurance but occupational and physical therapy are, which is why Speigel wants to get those therapists in her school.

Georganna Miller, academic fieldwork coordinator with the Department of Occupational Therapy at Xavier University, spent time at Speigel’s center over the summer. Miller describes Speigel’s new venture the way others have talked about Snooty Fox stores: “She is quite the pioneer.”

Speigel admits that shifting gears from for-profit Snooty Fox to non-profit conductive learning has its challenges. At the center, where every child receives a scholarship, success is measured by smiles and progress. “I can’t say no when I see a child that could be helped,” Speigel concedes. “We find the money somewhere.”

“Donna is an amazing woman,” parent Lee says. “She has adapted to the world of not-for-profit like it is her second skin. Donna gives so much of her heart and soul to this center while still continuing to run her very successful business.”

And there are similarities in Speigel’s two endeavors. “At 56, I don’t want to learn a lot of new things,” Speigel says, “But, with the center you also have to be an entrepreneur. You have to know how to market, how to raise funds, all of those things. You can’t make this work without a business background, and managing people is important no matter where you are.”

Herbst agrees, “Money is not the primary success measurement, but it has to be a consideration. Finding qualified employees and keeping them happy can be incredibly difficult.”

Speigel’s stores and learning center overlap. Snooty Fox shoppers get 10 percent discounts with the purchase of a $10 “platinum card.” That money goes directly to the school. At the Snooty location in Erlanger, “Angel Fox” occupies the rear quarter of the store. There, instead of consigning items, customers donate merchandise, with all proceeds going directly to the learning center.

“You never know why things happen,” Speigel says of her reasons for starting the Conductive Learning Center of Greater Cincinnati. “But I tell people this is not a sad story. Dayton has cerebral palsy. It does not have him.” ■