Fun activities for families and toddlers abound in Amanda McKee’s neighborhood in Jefferson City, Missouri.
But when you’re a parent of a child with profound disabilities, even simple pastimes like zipping down a slide at the local park seem nearly impossible.
McKee’s two and a-half-year-old son, Carter, has CHARGE Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that has left him with vision and hearing loss, swallowing difficulties and significant motor delays.
The disorder is “very isolating for my son. He has a lot of medical issues and is susceptible to illnesses,” said McKee, who quit her job in the Jefferson City school district to care for Carter full time.
But McKee isn’t alone, thanks to the Special Learning Center, a local agency helping children with developmental delays and disabilities that’s earned a permanent place in the hearts of employees of Central Electric Power Cooperative.
The co-op first hosted preschoolers from the center at touch-a-truck events in 1999. Now the G&T holds can’t miss silent and live auctions that have raised almost $100,000.
Tugging At Your Heartstrings
“Each year, we try to give more and more to these families. Once you see these kids, your heart is pretty much touched and you will bend over backwards to help the center,” said Connie Harrison, an engineering aide at the G&T in Jefferson City and a co-leader of the campaign.
This year, employees, retirees, vendors and spouses raised a record $19,000 through the auctions, now in their 10th year. The total includes a $5,000 grant from CoBank’s Sharing Success program.
The proceeds were enough to help the center sustain “Capable Kids, Capable Families,” an in-home program that links families such as the McKees to outside agencies and resources.
A grant began the program several years ago. Guidelines stipulate that “we need to raise 30 percent of the award, eventually providing full funding,” said Debbie Hamler, the center’s executive director.
The G&T is committed to helping the center meet that goal—several employees have relatives who have received services or work at the center—and doing what it can to help the center’s youngsters and their families.
“As a G&T, we’re not in the community as much as our members, so we felt like we needed to do something to give back. This is our community project,” said Mark Newbold, Central Electric’s director of administrative services.
“Employees really get behind it. Everyone has a good time trying to create more excitement and make more money,” said Harrison.
Darryl Ruettgers, lead lineman at the G&T, has volunteered since the fundraiser’s early days and today coordinates donations of items among crews for the auctions.
“I’m almost six-foot-four and weigh 265 pounds, but I’m the biggest softie you’ve ever seen,” said Ruettgers. “The poor parents … they have to deal with their children’s disabilities every day. It must always be on their minds.”
Friendly competitions between departments and even vendors have upped the ante. An “inside and outside” employee challenge in 2003 raised $1,600. Proceeds from smaller fundraisers throughout the year go towards big-ticket items for the auctions.
“Our line contractors even got involved after they heard about the program, each trying to outdo the other,” said Janice Coffelt, manager of materials and services at Central Electric.
“We have vendors now that want to participate on a personal level and not just through their companies. They want to help this cause. One vendor owns a horse farm and contacted the Special Learning Center directly to arrange a day to give the children pony rides.”
The fundraiser’s growing success means an ample source of revenue for the center’s programs, which serve about 650 children, at least for this year and perhaps down the road.
That translates into more adaptive equipment and toys in its “lending library” for families; more speech and physical therapists for children; and more evaluations and assessments for children.
It also means continued support for McKee and the 49 other participants in the Capable Kids, Capable Families program. A centerpiece of the program is monthly home visits to check on families coping with the daily challenges of raising a child with special needs.
“We provide each other with emotional support. They have been a blessing for me and my family,” said McKee, herself a part-time home visitor for 20 families.
The early days of the G&T’s involvement with the Special Learning Center resonate among staff. From the 1999 field trip through today, G&T employees still look forward to Halloween, when children trick or treat at the Jefferson City headquarters.
“They just get us,” said Pamela Mayfield, the center’s business manager and director of Capable Kids, Capable Families. “We so appreciate that.”