Brandon and Carrington’s Weekend Adventure

Brandon and Carrington, two children from St. Mary’s Home, joined Team Hoyt VB for a trip this past weekend to Holland, Mass., where father-and-son athlete team Dick and Rick Hoyt live. 

The group of 96 athletes, participants, family and friends traveled from Hampton Roads by plane, car and RV and enjoyed a cookout on Saturday at the Hoyts’ home – complete with rides for everyone who wanted to go on Dick Hoyt’s boat for a spin around the lake. They also ran the Holland Elementary School 5K on Sunday morning and celebrated afterward at Team Hoyt’s Finish Line restaurant. 

Team Hoyt VB is a local offshoot of Team Hoyt, which strives to help people with physical disabilities become active members of the community. Dick Hoyt and his son compete together in marathons and triathlons nationwide. Members of Team Hoyt VB have pushed children and young adults in St. Mary’s annual 5K, among other races. 

Check out St. Mary’s Facebook page for more photos from the weekend trip. 

Nurses Week: Meet Jennifer Stephens

Jennifer Stephens. (Photo courtesy Lori Dill.)

Jennifer Stephens cried the first time she came to St. Mary’s Home for Disabled Children, for a clinical placement while she was studying to become a licensed practical nurse. She thought it would be too heartbreaking to be around children and young adults with severe disabilities. “I saw everything that was ‘wrong’ with the children, and what the children couldn’t do,” she said. “After I worked here, all I saw was what they CAN do.”
She ended up enjoying the experience so much that she went to work at St. Mary’s Home four years ago after she finished nursing school at Sentara Obici Hospital. Stephens, 28, commutes from Como, N.C., a drive that takes 70 minutes one way.

Stephens’ commitment to children with disabilities began in high school. She was so inspired by the boy she teamed up with when she volunteered for the Special Olympics that she decided to study special education. After one semester in college, though, she realized she wasn’t meant to be a teacher and switched to nursing, initially studying to become a certified nurse aide, while she worked fulltime as an assistant manager at a grocery store. 

Her colleagues describe Stephens as a “very cool LPN” and a “sweet soul” who’s always looking for ways to help the children and to help other staff with their work. She’s dependable, quick-thinking, conscientious, passionate, easygoing and joyful. When told of this praise, she modestly said that she’s just doing her job and that it’s a privilege to work with the children at St. Mary’s.

But, like many at St. Mary’s, she does more than her job. One little girl she knows particularly well because they both arrived at St. Mary’s around the same time. She’s bought clothes and other items for Jenny, and, with the permission of the girl’s family, she occasionally takes Jenny home to visit with Stephens’ family.

National Nurses Week: Meet CNA Gwen Dickens

To celebrate National Nurses Week, we’re highlighting several members of the nursing department at St. Mary’s Home for Disabled Children, as voted on by their colleagues. Today, meet Gwen Dickens, a certified nurse aide:

Hamda and Gwen Dickens. Photo by Re:Act Media. 

Gwen Dickens started working at St. Mary’s Home about 36 years ago, following in her sister’s footsteps. Her colleagues say Dickens, who has studied early childhood development, is a great team leader who loves children and has a sweet nature that brightens everyone’s day – and that she often goes beyond the call of duty.

After working mostly night shifts, Dickens switched to the 7 a.m.-3 p.m. shift about three years ago. That’s when she was assigned to Hamda’s room. Hamda didn’t smile much, and Dickens made it her mission, in addition to her regular duties, to make Hamda happy. 

The two have grown extremely close as they’ve established a daily routine centered around talks, walks throughout St. Mary’s 88,000-square-foot building and story time, with Dickens reading books that Hamda chooses. Hamda now smiles a lot as a way to express herself, especially when Dickens is around. Dickens also is Hamda’s constant companion during field trips into the community, such as excursions to the library or shops. 

“This is a special place and when you see a child’s accomplishment, it does your heart good to know that you have contributed in some small way to foster that accomplishment,” said Dickens, 55, of Norfolk. 

Photo by Re:Act Media. 

Congratulations, St. Mary’s Class of 2011

Principal Terry Lyle presents Josh with his diploma during the commencement ceremony in St. Mary’s Atrium. 

Friday was a day to celebrate Josh and Maurice, two young men who live at St. Mary’s Home, and to reflect on how far they have come as they prepare for their future.

“For most of us, living is relatively easy. We get up in the morning and get dressed and drive to work,” special educator Judith Green said during her keynote speech at the graduation ceremony for St. Mary’s Class of 2011.

“For Maurice and Joshua, it is not easy,” said Green, director of Southeastern Cooperative Educational Programs, or SECEP. “They have struggled to live, they have to depend on others, and they have fought hard to get where they are today.”

Every child and young adult at St. Mary’s attends classes, either at the Home through a partnership with SECEP or at Norfolk and Virginia Beach public schools. Graduation signals the end of formal education for young people who are 21 or will turn 21 in the next year. Currently, young adults must find other living arrangements, such as group homes, before they turn 22, although St. Mary’s is planning to open an adult wing in 2012.

Families, guardians, staff, friends and other residents gathered in the Atrium for this year’s ceremony, which began with four of the younger children presenting colors and also included a video tribute featuring photos of the two graduates through the years.

The caregivers and teachers who knew the graduates the best shared a bit about them. “You haven’t really experienced St. Mary’s until you’ve met Maurice,”  who loves to sing and dance, said teacher Kimberley Curll; as if to prove her point, he smiled and vocalized and gestured exuberantly through much of the ceremony.

Nancy Bryan gave the family tribute. She said her son Josh has been a blessing and has  taught her to “learn to appreciate the small victories.” She also thanked the staff at St. Mary’s Home for taking good care of him.

Before the keynote speech, St. Mary’s CEO William C. Giermak noted that Green is retiring this year and said the Home was honored to have one of her last official acts be to speak at commencement.

Earlier Friday, the teaching staff presented Terry Lyle with a paver in her honor to celebrate her 10th anniversary as principal of  SECEP REACH (Raising  Expectations and Abilities for Children with Complex Health Needs). The paver has been placed along the walkway at St. Mary’s entrance.