Written by Jennifer Stanley
I learned to walk when I was two. Until then, I was carried or scooted myself where I needed to go. My new iron leg braces went from the bottom of my feet to my hips and wouldn’t bend at all. I practiced every day on the front lawn with the wooden parallel bars my dad made for me. Our neighbor sat on his front porch steps across the street and watched me learn to walk. He always cried big, fat, silent tears. I didn’t understand why my neighbor cried for me. I have always had a spirit of determination. Being a polio survivor is all I know.
I contracted polio during the epidemic in 1949. I was nine months old. At the time, it was the worst fear of parents with young kids, but my mom and dad made the best of it. They treated me just like my siblings and loved me like a “normal” kid. In the summers before elementary school, I went to Camp Isanogel to swim and play. There were other children with disabilities. Some kids wore leg braces like me, but others were challenged with different physical limitations or mental disabilities. We were all the same in that we were different. It was fun and I felt accepted. But all that changed when I started Kindergarten.
On my first day at Harry Mock School, I was five years old, wore a size 3 dress, and weighed 25 pounds. I could barely see over the teacher’s desk. I was nervous, just like most new Kindergarten students. I expected challenges, but I was not prepared for the shock and confusion of being put in the basement. They didn’t know what to do with us, the students with physical or mental disabilities, so we went to the basement—beneath the regular classrooms for our “special” schooling.
I don’t remember much about K-2, but I’m pretty sure I lost more than just proper education down there. By the time I went into a mainstream classroom in 3rd grade, my can-do spirit had started to fade. There wasn’t one particular bully who beat me down. My erosion happened gradually as day after day, year after year, I was the girl without a best friend, the one picked last for teams, and the easy target of primary school humor. Once I learned to walk, I believed I could do anything. By the end of grade school, all I wanted to do was walk away.
In 8th grade, we moved to a new school. My dad decided we were leaving the city and I started at Eaton School. I didn’t know it at the time, but my first teacher, Mr. Bixler, told my class, “There’s a new girl coming today and she is crippled. I better not ever hear of anyone making fun of her. Ever.” And they didn’t! In fact, I met my best friend, Cynthia, there. We are still best friends to this day.
A boy asked me to dance. His name was Rick and he didn’t ask on a dare or because he felt sorry for me. He asked because he wanted to slow dance . . . with me. Since then, I’ve always loved to dance. I never thought that would happen for me, but it did! High School was full of fond memories and wonderful friendships. I was voted ”most witty” in my senior class.
I wish I could say that my whole life was happy like high school. But I’ve had a couple of bad marriages and years when the heartache of my past caught up with me. My determined spirit dissolved. I stopped working. I stopped socializing. I stopped caring. I was content to raise my daughter and collect a welfare check.
Fortunately, the welfare department didn’t want me to stay home any longer, and they found a job for me as a receptionist at Hillcroft in September 1976. I tried to fail my typing test, but they hired me anyway. It was the best thing that could have happened.
I’ve been working at Hillcroft for 38 years and I can’t imagine working anywhere else. I am now the Administrative Manager. I oversee front office duties and client records. Every day I ask myself what my team and I can do to make someone else’s job better. Everything in my life has improved since I started working here. I’m happily married and love playing, and yes, dancing, with my grandkids as often as possible.
In high school, my class visited Wyandotte Cave in Southern Indiana to explore the long, dark, damp, and difficult terrain of the underground. I knew before we started it would be a long and difficult path, but it never occurred to me not to go. I was always up for an adventure! During the last stretch, I couldn’t walk any farther. I simply couldn’t go any more. My friends came around me and laced their hands together under me. They took turns making baskets with their arms and they carried me the rest of the way out. I realize now I never would have gone into that cave if I didn’t trust that my friends would be sure I made it all the way through. I wasn’t afraid because I knew I was accepted and safe.
That’s what we have here at Hillcroft—an environment where people with disabilities trust us not to leave them behind. Clients are willing to take risks and try new things because they know they are accepted and safe. We encourage everyone to go farther than they believed possible through work projects, sports teams, art, music, and friendship. We do this by lacing together to be sure every person reaches their goal.
Everyone needs carried now and then.
Jennifer Stanley is a Muncie native, entrepreneur, musician, and aspires to spend more time writing. She appreciates any opportunity to advocate for the awesome people and agencies in Muncie, IN.
This story originally appeared in Facing Disabilities in East Central Indiana, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Hillcroft Services in Muncie, Indiana.