(Chapter 22, “Dairyman’s Daughter,” remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)
The Cybertype machine was only one contribution that came through the link of Community of Hope with Madison College–which became James Madison University in 1977. The school’s growing reputation for excellence in health services meant Community of Hope had access to cutting edge advances in speech therapy. When two professors discovered a grant was available in the use of technology to teach people with speech problems, they thought of COHOPE.
Mary and Hugh were excited, but also curious. They asked one of the professors, “Aren’t there always a lot of people competing for grants that can only go to a few? How would we go about doing this…I mean, what makes you think COHOPE would have a chance?”
“Of course it’s a competitive process. We wouldn’t downplay that, yet look what you’ve already built, basically from scratch–a program effectively serving some of the most severely speech impaired people we’ve seen. We believe, if you focus on that, you can be very competitive.”
Mary pondered his words. She was drawn to the idea. “Okay, how would we go about this? Is there a formula or something we need to follow?”
“Yes. there is a protocol, and we can help you with that. Most of all, though, grants are awarded on the basis of uniqueness and merit. Your program already stands out in those areas.”
After further discussion, they decided to give it a try. Hugh worked hard at learning the “system,” as he called it, for presenting their cause. They submitted their request and waited. Finally, the word came–they had, indeed, won a grant. Mary and Hugh were thrilled.
When the money arrived, they used it to sponsor a Communication Workshop at the Ingleside Resort in nearby Augusta County. People attended from all around the state. COHOPE staff members were among them, including two teachers who produced an outstanding project. They published a book detailing a unique approach to handicapped education that became a resource in the JMU library.
Of special impact was a chapter about an innovation called the “Nine-to-Nine Board.” This was a chart that could be adapted to the needs, interests, and background of individual students. Through a system of nine different eye movements, handicapped persons could use the chart to communicate.
One COHOPE resident named Melody, was severely handicapped, confined to a wheelchair, and had no speech at all. Using the technology of the Nine-to-Nine Board, in tandem with a sensitivity fostered by Community of Hope’s faith-based philosophy, the staff tapped into Melody’s bright, active mind that was otherwise masked by her condition. She learned to communicate her thoughts, needs and wants by casting nine different expressive eye movements. As a result, she entered a new world of relationships that was thrilling to her…almost like a bird set free from a cage.
Trough experiences like this, the dairyman’s daughter often realized how far her life had taken her down a path she could never have imagined in her childhood days of cherry tree musings on her grandpa’s farm. Then there were other times when she learned things through unexpected interactions with her COHOPE family.
Such an experience occurred one day during lunch, which was the primary daily meal where residents, day students, and staff members gathered around the table. Mary wasn’t always able to be there, but on this particular day she was. Since Paul needed someone to feed him, she took that responsibility to free someone else. On this day she sat next to him, alternating between feeding him, and then herself.
Paul sometimes had difficulty chewing and swallowing, so his food was pureed. Still, if he was given a second bite too quickly, he could choke. Over the years Mary fell into a habit of coaching him by saying in a low voice, “Swallow, Paul. Swallow, Swallow,”
For some reason Paul suddenly rebelled against her method, as if he couldn’t listen to her coaching any longer He reared up in his chair, actually standing on his footrests for a few seconds, pulled loose his arm straps and shoulder strap, then turned to his mother and shouted, “Swallow! Swallow! Swallow!” Exhausted, but triumphant, he flopped back into his chair amidst an awkward silence as everyone stopped eating and fastened their gaze on Mary to see how she would react.
She felt equally shocked, but recovered quickly. Calmly, she refastened all Paul’s straps, then continued eating her own lunch. She completely ignored Paul for several minutes, then quietly resumed feeding him. She offered spoonful after spoonful, and he ate as though nothing had happened. Conversation resumed around the table as everyone got back to their own lunch. Incident over.
Later that afternoon Mary passed Paul;s room, glanced inside and his eyes met hers. His facial expression said he wanted her to come in and talk, so she did.
“I…am…ssorry…Mmmo-ther.” He twisted his head, straining in his chair as he spoke “I…am…sorry I…BLEW…UP!” He exhaled deeply as the tension left his body, keeping eye contact.
Mary reached to him, looking into his eyes. “You had every reason to blow up, Paul, and I’m glad you did. Thanks for making me put myself in your place and realize what a mistake I’ve been making.”
Paul said nothing more, but his relief was comforting to Mary, as was the beautiful smile that accompanied it.
Life at COHOPE was like that! It was sometimes full of surprises, always involved learning experiences, was frequently exhausting, and always fulfilling. Mary would lie down at night, offering thanks to God for everything that was happening in her life. She would pray for wisdom and strength to continue the journey she had begun the day she married the man of whom her father said, “You’ll never have a dull moment.”
He had been right. What was also right, she realized, was that without Hugh’s unique talents and temperament, she could never have met the challenges her life had produced. She gave thanks as she reminisced.
COHOPE truly was a community where hope resided, and became visible in peoples’ lives. Mary and Hugh were often invited to speak before church and civic groups, telling their story. From the beginning, this was natural for Hugh, the salesman who never seemed to meet a stranger. It was much harder for Mary. Early on she told him she didn’t think she could do it. His reply was characteristically to the point, couched in a touch of humor.
“Oh,” he said, “just act like you’re talking on the phone. You never have any trouble with that!”
She smiled to herself remembering this. His advice had been sound, and she had learned to just relax and be herself in any situation.
Sometimes Mary and Hugh’s efforts brought formal public recognition. Every year the Exchange Club in Harrisonburg presented a “Golden Deeds” award to someone in the community. One year Hugh was given that award in recognition of his devotion to the cause of helping where he saw a need.
Because of her work with COHOPE, Mary was invited to join the Pilot Club of Harrisonburg. This was an organization for women comparable to the Rotary Club. The group took interest in their members for the kind of services they provided through charitable organizations. Mary remembered warmly the honor she felt when the club presented her with the Salvation Army’s “Others” award for her work at COHOPE. She was the second person in Harrisonburg to be given this award.
Mary cherished all of these experiences. Her life became a treasure chest of accomplishments focused on others, She felt blessed and deeply fulfilled
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter,” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris.)