(Cross-posted at the "Christopher Closeup" blog)
21-year-old Haylee Cain, feeling alone and hopeless, lay in her bed in an Alabama nursing home for senior citizens. She didn’t yet know that an article written by journalist Michelle Eubanks from “The Times Daily” newspaper would soon change her life in a dramatic way.
Haylee was afflicted with a form of cerebral palsy that produced a lot of spasticity in her arms and legs. She wasn’t able to stand and had limited use of her hands. Though she had previously lived with her grandfather, his own health problems resulted in him not being able to care for her anymore. Haylee ended up in the nursing home of infirm senior citizens because Alabama has no state agency for people 21 or older “who suffer from physical, rather than intellectual, disabilities.” Though Haylee struggled with her body, her mind was sharp.
One day, Michelle Eubanks from Florence, AL, “The Times Daily” got in touch with Haylee because she wanted to write a story about the disadvantage faced by people with strictly physical handicaps. Though reluctant to be interviewed, Haylee agreed to Michelle’s request thinking it might help others who found themselves in similar dire straits.
The morning Michelle’s article was published, Tuscumbia, AL, resident Judson Emens brought the newspaper to his wife Donna and showed her the picture accompanying the story. “Do you know who that is?” he asked. Stunned, Donna happily exclaimed, “That’s our Haylee-bug!”
It turns out that when Haylee was five-years-old, Donna was her aide in the Head Start program. She recalled on the “Christopher Closeup” radio show/podcast, “(Haylee) was absolutely the brightest spot in anybody’s day! She was so full of life and love.”
Haylee often spent weekends and holidays with the Emens who came to love the girl’s unconquerable spirit. When Haylee eventually moved to Texas to live with extended family, Donna lost touch with her. She had recently heard through the grapevine that Haylee was back in Alabama. Though she desperately wanted to re-connect with her, she couldn’t because of privacy laws. The newspaper story was an answer to Donna’s prayers.
Donna discovered that Haylee’s nursing home was only 10 minutes away from her home so she rushed over to visit. She said, “When (Haylee) saw me she started screaming, “Mama-bear!’ because that’s what she used to call me. I just started crying, I couldn’t help it. She was laying there so pitifully…She said, ‘Mom, I don’t belong behind these walls. I belong out there.’ And when she said that to me, I knew immediately that I was going to have to do something…When I came home, I was crying and my husband said, ‘How was it?’ And I said, ‘I just wanted to scoop her up and bring her home with me.’ His very next words were, ‘Go get her.’”
Though the intention was good, Donna realized it wouldn’t be that easy. She and Judson were already in the process of adopting a 3-year-old girl named Nadia who they’d taken in when she was 4-months-old. Donna also held a job she loved at a cancer center. Their house was small and not particularly handicap-friendly. But as Donna said, “It just all started coming together. We prayed about it, we talked about it…We knew that if we didn’t bring her home with us that she was eventually going to be so depressed that I didn’t know if she would come out of it or not.”
When asked where she got the courage to take someone with physical challenges and mobility issues into her home, Donna responded, “From God. God inspired my life with my brother who was Down Syndrome. He died five years ago at age 48. All my life, he has been the light of my life. I think God putting him in our lives helped us to realize that it’s good to help other people with needs.”
The Emens’ lives have become more physically demanding since welcoming Haylee into their home because she needs to be lifted up or carried. “It’s a lot of physical activity,” says Donna who left her job to care for Haylee full time. “It just so happens that my husband and I have strong backs and strong arms and we’re very willing to do this for her.”
A special van that could accommodate Haylee’s electric wheelchair would be a big help. The spasticity in her legs causes her to shake a lot, but her electric wheelchair keeps her muscles and legs steadier. Donna and Judson’s cars can only accommodate a manual wheelchair, however, so it makes going places more problematic. Locals have set up a fund to raise money for the vehicle.
Living with the Emens has done wonders for Haylee’s physical condition and spirits. Whereas before, she couldn’t stand on her own or feed herself, she is now improving in both those areas. She also has a laptop and cell phone which she uses to communicate with friends. More importantly, Haylee has a new goal in life. Donna explains, “She wants to be a motivational speaker, and I really want her to because she is such a good speaker. She has a story and people need to hear it.”
Though the Emens are focused on both Haylee and their adopted daughter Nadia, they’re keeping an eye on the bigger picture too. In January, they plan a trip to Montgomery, Alabama to see if they can get some laws changed so physically-handicapped people have better options than being placed in nursing homes like Haylee was.
In thinking back over everything that’s transpired over the last few months, Donna concludes, “I knew she was going to bless us, but I didn’t have a clue she was going to bless us like she does. She is far more a blessing to us than we are to her. She brings joy and laughter. And you know, it’s a lot of work but it is so much fun!”
(To listen to Donna's full interview, visit www.christophers.org/closeuppodcast)