CP Mother of the Year
(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)
Mary and Hugh were challenged to go the extra mile when they got involved with a CP Parents group. Here were people who wanted to create a center to provide schooling and physical therapy for their children. They were actively exploring methods to fund their dreams.
The group provided good networking for Mary. She thrived on their bi-monthly meetings that provided bonding around common experiences, ideas, frustrations and triumphs. She got involved with the funding discussion. Television was a new and powerful communication instrument. The group decided to approach WLW-TV about doing a telethon to get visibility for their efforts.
They launched a contest to name one of their members “CP Mother of the Year,” and have this person presented during the telethon, which would be held at a prominent hotel. Over a period of time community business leaders submitted letters nominating someone for this honor. Mary was overwhelmed when she received the most letters and was selected. The night of the telethon her children were thrilled to see their mom on television.
From there on fund-raising efforts proved effective. The group hired a professional fund-raiser to direct the program and soon they were able to move forward with the center. That’s when Mary suddenly hit a brick wall. When the center was ready to open she found out Paul wasn’t qualified to participate. Several other children with similar levels of need were also rejected. She learned that group leaders had set minimum standards for participation that said only children who could feed themselves and were toilet trained could qualify.
Mary was crushed and angered. “I can’t believe this, can you?” she said over the phone to another parent whose child was rejected. “Why did we all work so hard if this isn’t going to serve the children who need it most?”
She took her feelings to God in prayer. Lord, I don’t understand this. We found this group, believed in their cause, helped them raise money to create this facility…and now we’re blocked! Why? What did we do wrong? Show us the way.
In response, she heard an inner voice saying, Wait! Keep the faith! Look deeper!
Mary found herself going the “extra mile” again. She called the other parents of rejected children. “Maybe this just wasn’t the right approach,” she found herself saying. “Maybe we need to do something else. Can you come to our house Saturday afternoon? We’ll have sandwiches and talk this over.”
On Saturday five children and their parents showed up. This was a different “coming together” than they had experienced with the other group. They were all active caregivers who loved their kids and wanted to advocate for them. They began to meet each week and dubbed themselves the CP Support Group.
The impact on the children was noticeable. Being a child with Cerebral Palsy was isolating. People around them didn’t understand their condition or their needs. The support group had the effect of normalizing their lives. Now they could simply “be kids”–laughing and playing together in the safety this group provided. Mary and Hugh were thrilled.
“Sometimes God has different ideas that we can’t see right away,” Mary said one day. “We had to run into a brick wall in order to see past the boundaries we had helped set up.” The support group began to feel energized and soon became visible, and people wanted to help. One of those was Paul’s Sunday school teacher. She and Mary had become friends, and one day she said, “You know, I’d love to come over when your group meets and read some stories to the children. It might help stimulate them to learn words. Do you think that would be all right?”
Mary and the group welcomed her. Soon she was innovating ways to teach these special needs children to speak. She would put a word she wanted them to learn on a red ribbon that she pinned to their shirt or dress. The kids squealed with delight and tried to form the words. They began to have contests to see which child could get the most words on their ribbon. This became such a stimulus that the group grew from six to twelve children.
About that time Clifton Methodist Church received a new pastor, Reverend Warren Bright. Mary invited him to her house for one of the support group’s meetings. He was impressed with what they were doing, but noticed how crowded they were. He made a suggestion.
“Have you ever considered meeting at the church? We have a large social hall, a kitchen and bathrooms–anything you might need. You would have so much more room. I do hope you’ll consider this.”
It didn’t take them long to say “yes.” The group became known as the Clifton “CP School.” A woman named Mildred Martin emerged as a key leader who would keep the group functioning for many years.
Mary and Hugh continued their trips with Paul to visit Dr. Phelps during all of this. They were still thinking about moving to the Shenandoah Valley some day so they could be closer to Maryland. Mary also remembered how the beauty of the area had attracted her. They put their house on the market, but after a while took it back off due to lack of interest.
Hugh had been selling women’s hats, and had done well with it, but it took him out of town a lot. Then he had the chance to open a business of his own. He had become interested in woodworking and cabinetry. A space suitable for a shop opened up on Vine Street, next door to a moving company. It was an ideal location. A major part of his work became refinishing furniture damaged in transit. Applying his woodworking skills to the house, he decided to remodel the kitchen. About this same time they put the house back on the market, still thinking about Virginia. He was only halfway finished with the remodeling when the house sold.
Suddenly their world was turning upside down again. The dream of living in the Shenandoah Valley was now a possibility. Hugh drove to Harrisonburg where they had stayed at the Pure Village Court, and looked for a house. He had limited funds and the realtor showed him several places, but nothing seemed right. Then he was shown an old tenant farm house in the village of Keezletown. It had once been part of the estate of Senator George Keezle.
The property covered three-and-a-half acres that included an apple orchard…and a magnificent view of the Massanutten Mountain and the valley that spread out from it. The house needed a lot of work, but the price was right. He went home and described it to Mary.
“I bought the most magnificent view you’ll find anywhere in the Shenandoah Valley. You can sit in the front yard and look out across miles of farmland. She was fascinated with his description, and intrigued by the apple orchard. Then she choked back some misgivings when he told her more about the condition of the house.
“It has a cistern for water located right outside the back door.”
Mary pictured the well outside the kitchen of the hold house on the dairy farm where She wasn’t sure how she felt about the cistern. Then he told her the biggest drawback. “It doesn’t have a bathroom, and it has no closets.”
“Hubert Harris, if you think I’m going to live in a house without a bathroom or closets, you are mistaken!”
He tried to console her. “You won’t have to live in it like that, honey. I’m going back for a few weeks and I’ll fix it up. The soil perks, so I can put in a septic tank and build a bathroom…and I can build closets. I’ll also turn the old back porch into an enclosed utility room.”
She thought about the view and her desire to live in the Valley. This was the biggest “extra mile” she’d encountered yet. After prayer and more discussion, she saw God’s hand in it. It was 1951 and they had lived in the house of her dreams on Howell Avenue for six years. She reckoned it was time to trade dreams and entrusted that to God.
The dairyman’s daughter was about to move back to the country…not to a farm, but close. It felt good!
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)