This is the eighth in a series of articles about health care in Southwest Georgia, an area of the state that has great health needs and challenges, but also some innovative approaches to such problems. The series is the product of a collaboration between Georgia Health News and the health and medical journalism graduate program at UGA Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, a partnership made possible by the Ford Foundation and Grady College.
Albany resident Ann West credits Easter Seals Southern Georgia with helping her adopted son, 10-year-old Ty Christian West, get the lifesaving medical treatment he needed.
Ty was born with Down syndrome and other anomalies, including neuromuscular scoliosis. As Ty grew, his malformed ribcage began to crush his heart and lungs, making breathing difficult and setting him up for recurrent aspiration pneumonia.
The Albany-based Easter Seals division connected West with a specialized clinic in Philadelphia, and surgeons implanted a titanium device that stabilized Ty’s ribcage, allowing his lungs to expand more normally. Since the device was installed in 2008, his ability to breathe is much improved, and his bouts of aspiration pneumonia have plummeted.
“Easter Seals is always there for us,” West, 61, said recently.
Statewide, Easter Seals provides more services to children and adults with disabilities than any other agency. And in Southwest Georgia, where the need for services is great, the Easter Seals division is thriving.
Beth English became executive director of the nonprofit’s Albany-based Southern Georgia division in 1992, when it had 17 staff members and about 300 clients. Today, it serves nearly 3,400 clients in 60 South Georgia counties and 14 counties in North Florida, with a staff of 472 employees.
Between 2014 and 2015, the budget for Easter Seals Southern Georgia (ESSG) rose to $11.1 million from $9.5 million.
“Planning is the reason we’ve been able to grow,” said English. “We’ve got a feedback loop so that we know that we are actually doing the kind of work that gets us more toward [our] goals.”
Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard said Easter Seals, through its expanding presence, has “a huge impact on our community.”
One of her toughest jobs as mayor has been job creation, she said. Hubbard praised English for collaborating effectively with individuals, businesses and officials to grow ESSG.
“If we don’t collaborate, we can’t get anything done,” said Hubbard.
A job that never ends
During a typical day, English might exchange emails with state legislators, meet with Hubbard or other officials, or participate in an evening meeting with a local organization.
More importantly, she and her staff work with federal and state agencies that contract with Easter Seals to provide transportation, housing, health care, specialized services, day programs, and job training and employment opportunities, for children and adults with disabilities. Program fees and grants account for about 96 percent of ESSG’s annual budget.
English enjoys spending time with her clients.
“The most fun thing for me is to visit in the homes and see the people we work with, or to walk back to our adult day program and see those faces and see what they’re doing, or walk back to the workshop and work with someone who’s out on a job,’’ she said. “It’s just those personal stories of how people can overcome any challenge. That, to me, is very energizing.”
Among Easter Seals’ services for adults with disabilities is developing customized employment. Staff members evaluate a client’s strengths and interests and identify a work situation where the client is likely to succeed. Some jobs involve sorting, assembling or packaging components for companies that contract with Easter Seals. Others involve office work.
Thomas Wimberly, 30, struggled to find fulfilling work because of a learning disability until Easter Seals turned things around for him. Wimberly has been an administrative assistant at the organization’s Albany headquarters for seven years. Although he was not a client of Easter Seals before joining its staff, he has become one of ESSG’s star employees.
“I’m glad there’s an organization like this around here where people can go, even if you have a disability, and find a job,” said Wimberly. “It doesn’t matter who you are. I’m just glad to be here instead of being at home and being bored.”
Sixty-seven percent of the agency’s nearly 3,400 clients are under age 18, and some have particular needs that require adept case management, as well as connections across the state.
In April, Ty Christian underwent a procedure at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to replace his titanium rod with a new rod that is adjusted magnetically and needs to be replaced only once every 3 and a half years, as opposed to the surgical adjustment needed every six months with the old rod.
Although Ty’s health is much better than it used to be, West admits that caring for a special-needs child is an exhausting 24/7 job.
Like many other South Georgia families, West and her husband, Ken, turn to ESSG’s children’s respite home, Megan’s House, when they need a break. Megan’s House provides temporary care to medically fragile children for time periods ranging from one day to two weeks.
“We’ve gotten a great deal of rest at the times he’s been at Megan’s House,” said West. “He loves it there.”
The fee for Megan’s House services varies with caregivers’ income. Unlike ESSG’s other programs, which are supported by federal and state dollars, Megan’s House relies on donations to subsidize what caregivers cannot afford. The program taps a vein of philanthropy among local residents such as David Prisant, 67.
Prisant, an independent insurance agent from Albany, chairs ESSG’s board of directors’ finance committee. He organized an annual bass fishing tournament in late March that raised more than $8,700 for Megan’s House.
He has been on ESSG’s directors’ board for the past 21 years, and he empathizes with the clients ESSG serves, as well as with their family members.
“I could be one of these people,” he said. “I would want to be treated with the compassion and love and caring that you get from an organization like this.”
English added, “People are able to achieve enormous progress, and are able to do so much better when they have the right kinds of supports in place. Every single life has potential, regardless of how significant the person’s disability is.”
Sandra L. McGill is a second-year master’s student in Health and Medical Journalism at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication in Athens.