February 12, 2020 10:50:20 AM
It's sometimes odd, the associations we make.
Tuesday morning, I was a guest reader at PediaTrust, which provides daycare services for medically fragile children. There are 35 children from all across the Golden Triangle, enrolled in the center. Most have serious physical and cognitive disabilities. Eighty-percent are non-verbal. Some are vision-impaired. Many are unable to walk. Some require diapers even at age 10 or older. All have medical needs that regular daycare centers cannot provide.
All afternoon, I reflected on the brief time I spent with these beautiful children and the profound challenges they face and what their futures might entail.
And a couple of associations began to creep in. I thought of my Aunt Tatie and of something a fellow inmate told me when I was in prison 13 years ago.
There was a common thread: A terrible thing called isolation.
My Aunt Tatie was born with Down Syndrome in the 1920s, a time when the conventional wisdom help that Down Syndrome children had little potential to grow and learn. People like Aunt Tatie never attended school, were never exposed to much beyond the confines of their own small world, never challenges to grow and learn.
As the years went by, Tatie began to "act out." By the late 60s, she had become so unmanageable that her aging parents decided to send her to the Ellisville State School, a home for people who were then called "mentally retarded." Aunt Tatie was among the 15 women who died in a dormitory fire on Dec. 9, 1978.
In the spring of 2007, I was an inmate at Florence West Prison in Arizona. For those of us in the minimum security unit, some jobs took us outside our unit. A fellow inmate had a job distributing meals to Death Row inmates, who lived in solitary confinement, some for 20 years or longer.
It was probably the worst job you could have. Each day, he would arrived on Death Row, dress in something that looked like a hazmat uniform and roll the food cart down the long corridor, shoving plates of food through the narrow slot of each small cell. There wasn't a day that passed that he wasn't abused by the Death Row inmates he fed. He was pelted with feces, showered with urine and subjected to unspeakably vulgar taunts. A few days into the job, he was convinced that the inmates he served were insane. They had lost their humanity.
There is more than one kind of prison. Some are made of steel, concrete and razor wire. Others are made in the mind and body.
There was no happy ending for my Aunt Tatie, who lived and died in the prison of denied opportunities to grow and learn, develop and interact with the larger world around her. The men on death row, denied the human contact that makes us human, men whose worlds are confined to a sparse 8-by-10 foot prison cell, will meet a similar fate.
But the prospects for the children at PediaTrust are far more hopeful, thanks largely to our better understanding of the potential of even the most profoundly disabled child.
No matter the challenges, each child can progress, learn, grow. Their conditions may limit them, but they don't imprison them. Each small gain breaks the chains of debilitating isolation. There will likely be a world of things these children may never be able to do, but there is also a world of things they can achieve.
That's something that should inspire us all.
PediaTrust is dedicated not just to meeting the medical needs of children under their care, but to helping them reach their potential, whatever it may be. Can there be a more worthy goal of that, one more deserving of our support? This month, the center has opened its door for members of the community to participate in a reading program for the children.
It is their way of calling the public's attention to the work they do. Hopefully it will inspire people to volunteer at the center by providing one-on-one attention the children need during the center's daily activities. The goal is for every child to be able to participate in those activities. Having a volunteer to help out is essential.
It's sad to imagine what the lives of these children would be without this type of care.
It would be a lonely, frightening, frustrating prison of a life.
Most of us can do something about that, fortunately.
The question is: Will we?
If your conscience is stirred, call PediaTrust at 662-570-1957.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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