The Faces of MR/DD

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 3, 2006

As the vote on the replacement levy for the Lawrence County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities nears, there will be many facts and figures bandied about.

But here’s one fact that isn’t in any of the promotional literature: It’s impossible not to return Sidney Pratt’s smile.

The 7-year-old, who has lived with cerebral palsy all her life, has a wide smile, framed by two blonde braids. Her mother said that a big reason for that smile is the work Sidney has done with MR/DD programs.

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These are the human stories, the lives beyond the figures, that have propelled many people into pushing so hard for the levy that they say will continue to give children like Sidney the support they need.

Miss Independent

Nancy Crager is waiting for her daughter Stacy to come to the phone.

“She’s getting my last load of laundry for me, she said she wanted to save my legs,” Crager says with a laugh. “She’s little miss independent.”

Once she’s on the line though, the graduate of the program’s Open Door School is eager to talk about MR/DD.

“I liked it at school,” Stacy said. “I got to play volleyball, and I was a cheerleader and I bowled. What I liked best was I learned math.”

If one person liked Open Door more than Stacy, it was her mom. Stacy had started her education in public schools, which didn’t always provide the best environment for the girl.

“You don’t always get a fair chance when you’re in learning disabled classes,” Nancy Crager said. “People made fun of her there for being retarded. In public schools, you have this label.”

That label dissolved when she turned 16 and moved to Open Door School when she became, Crager said, not the girl who was different, but just “Stacy.”

“When she went to open door she kind of bloomed out of her bashfulness,” Crager said. “I think it was a great move.”

These days, the 29-year-old works as a gasket cleaner for Tri-State Industries Inc., which offers work and training opportunities to adults with MR/DD.

“It makes her feel like it’s important. Stacy thinks she has to go everyday, because if she didn’t go to work everyday then Tri-State’s not going to survive,” Crager says. “She thinks it wouldn’t survive without her.”

Crager said that besides giving her a sense of purpose, the purchasing power that her paycheck affords her gives her even more confidence.

“That paycheck that comes from TSI is her pocketbook money,” Crager said. “If she wants to buy junk, she can buy junk, if she wants to buy a DVD, she can do that.”

Her favorite purchases? Movies starring Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. But for Stacy, her favorite thing about TSI isn’t the money, or even her job.

“I like it there, my friends are up there,” Stacy said. “My new and my old friends.”

The cost of care

The big misnomer about the new MR/DD levy that will be voted on May 2 is that the levy really isn’t new at all.

The board is simply trying to get the $700,000 the levies should be generating.

The department is funded by two separate levies, a .5-millage levy started in 1985, and a 2-millage levy voted on in 1991. The problem is, those levies generate money based on the property values when they were established, meaning the income from the levy (around 25 percent of MRDD’s budget) is stagnant.

“They can only bring what they bring when you place them,” said Sarah Diamond Burroway, campaign coordinator for the Lawrence County MR/DD Levy Committee. “They’re old and outdated. If we updated them to 2006 property values, what the county auditor is telling us is that would generate an additional $700,000.”

The replacement levy would combine the two levies into one 2.5-millage levy and update the property values. The owner of a $100,000 home would pay an additional $38.48 per year under the replacement levy.

So, one might think, a $700,000 influx of cash could provide a lot of new services for MR/DD, but that’s not exactly the case.

Last year, the government did away with the Medicaid-based Community Alternative Funding System, or CAFS. Under CAFS, Lawrence County MR/DD schools received $632,000 annually to pay for services like physical therapy and nursing services.

So, MR/DD superintendent Paul Mollett said, the bid for the replacement levy is really just a reaction to those cuts.

“The fact of the matter is that this levy, in passing, allows us to replace the dollars that we lost in cuts,” Mollett said. “This is not a building levy. It’s not about adding new programs or additional services.”

If the levy should fail, Mollett doesn’t predict the closure of any MR/DD facilities, but a cut in services would be necessary. But, he said, that could be just as harmful.

“All services, depending on who you’re asking, are critical,” Mollett said. “You ask a parent who needs nursing services, that’s going to be the critical item. You ask a parent who needs housing, that’s their critical item. They’re all critical.”

Sidney smiles

“I was so scared. I wasn’t expecting that when I walked in there. It’s one of those things that you don’t think is going to happen to your child.”

That’s how Crissy Pratt reacted when her premature daughter Sidney was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. But after seven years with MR/DD, she says, her fears have been quieted.

Soon after Crissy was exposed to MR/DD, they became an instrumental part of her life. From the time she was born until she was three, therapists came to Crissy’s Getaway home to work with Sidney on her movement and speech abilities.

Sidney then began attending another wing of MR/DD services, the preschool at the Early Childhood Center, where she continued to thrive, especially on the social interaction that the school provided.

Pratt said that it’s been therapeutic for her as well. For instance, Sidney just had her first surgery, a hip lengthening so she could sit more comfortably. Pratt was supported by a network of parents who had been through the exact same thing many times over.

“It’s good to see other families so you can kind of compare,” Pratt said. “A lot of CP kids go through the same things.”

Through MR/DD, Pratt and Sidney have been able to share a life together like any other mother and daughter, filled with some of the same defeats, but some of the same victories … like the first time that Sidney read a Dick and Jane book to her mom.

“The first time I got to see her read, that was wonderful,” Pratt said. “That was great … that’ll make you cry.”

The button of support for the levy on Sidney’s hot pink wheelchair makes the families stance on the ballot clear. More than anything, Crissy wants to keep her daughter out of public schools, where she’s afraid the girl just wouldn’t fit in.

“She’s not any different than anybody else,” Pratt said. “At a typical school, she would be the one everybody stops to stare at, and not for a good reason, but just to gawk and stare. At Open Door everyone stops to stare at her, but that’s just because she’s cute.”

As if to punctuate the point, Sidney laughs from a nearby couch, with a smile that lights up the room.

Supports say it is smiles like that that cannot be quantified by just dollars and cents.

Exactly how much more will the MR/DD levy cost homeowners?

Appraised Value of HomeAssessed ValueDifference after levy