For some parents, having a special-needs child could be an opportunity for bitterness and questioning God. But for Evelyn Blythe, it was an opportunity to celebrate life and establish a program that encourages some of Tennessee's most under-appreciated residents.
In 1962 Blythe gave birth to Roger, who is mentally retarded and autistic. Through her fight to get Roger an education, Blythe established a program for mentally challenged children that eventually expanded to serve adults. Thirty years later, her program has spawned a network of programs across Tennessee that provide love and education to adults with disabilities.
"I couldn't understand why God had sent this child who was going to change my life," Blythe said. "But I know now that it was His plan. Every step of the way it was His plan for us to have this child."
Blythe and her late husband Ernest first realized Roger was different when he failed to reach developmental milestones as a child. When doctors evaluated Roger, they diagnosed him with crainiostenosis — a condition where a child's head is not large enough for his brain to develop.
"We simply accepted him, and we did the best we could," Blythe said. "We found out as much information as we could about mental retardation, but there was no way we were going to institutionalize him. He was a sweet child and still is. We just did the best we could."
Blythe remembers how difficult it was to find help raising a mentally retarded child in the 1960s. When Roger was two years old and his brother was four, their mother placed an ad in the local paper for a babysitter. People responded to the ad but would sometimes hang up the phone immediately when Blythe told them her son was mentally challenged.
A significant obstacle came when Roger was six years old and Blythe wanted to enroll him in school. In those days, states did not have mandatory education laws that required the government to educate children who were slow learners, Blythe said. Consequently, most disabled children were neglected and simply did not attend school, she said.
But Blythe began attending local school board meetings in Martin, Tennessee, and eventually received a grant to open a community-based center for mentally retarded children. In 1971 she opened the center on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Martin.
Known as Community Developmental Services (CDS), the center expanded to serve surrounding counties and take in adults by 1972. Thanks in part to Blythe's efforts, Tennessee passed a mandatory education law shortly after CDS opened that required the state to educate all children, regardless of their developmental level. Consequently, the special-needs children left CDS and went into public schools. By 1973 Blythe's program served adults only.
"When we got started, people thought I was crazy for wanting to provide a program (for special-needs children)," she said. "Kids were just sent off to the institutions. Now we are working to empty the institutions and bring all these folks back out into the community."
Through the early years of CDS, Roger lived at home with his parents. In 1985, however, Roger's father suffered a serious heart attack, and caring for Roger at home became difficult. Providentially, by that time CDS included a residential program for disabled adults and had inspired other similar residential programs across the state. So Roger moved to a residential program in Memphis.
"I never though he'd go anywhere but with me, even though I was talking other parents into residential programs," Blythe said. "But when my husband had the heart attack, it really was difficult for me and for him, for us, to continue. [Roger] liked to go and do — be active."
In adult programs like Roger's, each resident participates in activities specifically suited to his or her needs, Blythe explained. Some residents enroll in day training, which teaches basic self-help skills. Others work in a shelter workshop, where they perform contract labor for local industries. Still others have jobs outside the residential program.
Roger's autism makes it difficult for him to hold an outside job, but he flourishes in day training, where his mastery of electronics routinely impresses the staff, Blythe said.
"He's good with electronics," she said of Roger. "The staff tells me that in his program when they're having trouble with computers, they just holler for Roger and he comes and helps them out. It's amazing isn't it?"
Though none of the residents at CDS can function on their own in the world, Blythe said their level of skill has astounded her repeatedly. Some residents sort seeds for a nearby seed company. Still others work at McDonald's or the food services division of the local university. Recently, some residents have even begun to excel at painting.
"We find that all of our folks have special things they can do," she said. "It's just a matter of finding out what they can do and want to do. It has enriched many, many lives. I'm very proud to have had the opportunity to be involved with this program."
Blythe retired as executive director of CDS in 1997, but she still has a passion for caring for and educating the people who are often under-valued by society. She pleads with families not to abort babies that are diagnosed with disabilities but to allow them a chance at life.
"I don't believe in abortion," she said, "but I also know that it's up to the family. If I had known that Roger was going to be retarded, I couldn't have done anything about it. But after we had him, he brought us so much joy. You learn to appreciate the little things that very often you just overlook otherwise."
Even if a mother decides she cannot raise a mentally retarded child, abortion is still not a good option, Blythe said.
"There are so many programs available now to families that even if they did not want to raise the child, there are programs available that will let the child live and have an opportunity at life," she said.
Blythe said that ultimately she has used her life to serve people with disabilities because every life has infinite value before God.
"It's God's child, and this child has as much value as any other child," she said. "I do the best I can to explain this. I really feel that it was God's plan to send Roger to me and then to bring us to Martin for me to have this opportunity."
January 20 is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday
Resources are available from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission at www.ERLC.com.
David Roach is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Shelbyville, Kentucky, and a PhD candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.