Kathy & Meghan Bambrey
“I spent eight or nine years grieving,” says Kathy Bambrey, recalling the period following her 18-month-old daughter Meghan’s diagnosis with mental retardation.
It wasn’t until doctors finally convinced Bambrey there was nothing she could have done to prevent her youngest daughter’s problem that she finally found some peace. “Whatever Meghan has,” Bambrey says, “she was born with it.”
Meghan, now 17, is rapidly approaching adulthood, but her parents’ duties show little sign of letting up. Indeed, for parents of children with severe mental disabilities, adulthood does not lessen the level of care and responsibility.
That responsibility can be exhausting for Bambrey and her husband, George, who rely heavily on help from their three older children, two of whom live at home.
When her 20- and 27-year-old sons move out, though, Bambrey says, the going will get tougher.
Bambrey says she's frustrated that she hasn't found government funding for a respite caregiver, a specially trained sitter who can provide a break for parents. Meghan can’t be left alone because she wanders and because she has no fear of strangers. “Everybody’s her friend,” Bambrey says.
Among states, Virginia rates poorly for support of the adult handicapped, Bambrey says, so she, her husband George– a manager at Giant on Seminole Trail– and Meghan will likely leave the Commonwealth once Meghan turns 22 and is too old to attend public school.
For now, however, Meghan goes to the special ed program at Albemarle High School, where she is doing far better than doctors predicted when she was first diagnosed as a toddler.
Doctors initially told the Bambreys that Meghan “would probably show progress until she was around seven and then begin to decline,” recalls Bambrey, 54, who for the past 12 years has run the adult activity center for the ARC of the Piedmont, a nonprofit organization that offers services for the mentally handicapped.
Meghan has surpassed those predictions. Though she has definite academic deficits, as well as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), she has made continual progress over the last 16 years.
She can speak, sight-read a few words, write the alphabet, and perform simple math problems, and she has higher-level skills in other areas. “Even though she can’t read,” says Bambrey, “she can do a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and she can surf the internet, using the images on the screen to guide her.”
But these accomplishments are not enough to enable Meghan to attend standard high school classes.
Bambrey says she decided to keep Meghan in the special needs classes at the public schools after some particularly painful incidents– both social and disciplinary– while Meghan was mainstreamed at Cale Elementary.
“She was kicked off the school bus within two weeks,” Bambrey says, “because they said she wouldn’t stay in her seat the whole time. Show me any child who stays in their seat 100 percent of the time.”
She was also picked on by kids in her class. In one instance, Meghan arrived to perform in a choral performance. As Bambrey watched her daughter joining the class, she overheard two girls groan, “Oh, God, look, she came.”
School wasn’t the only place Meghan was treated poorly by her peers. In a Sunday school class, Bambrey says Meghan greeted a classmate with “Hi, friend!” and went to sit next to her. The girl got up and moved to another seat.
“This is my baby girl,” Bambrey says. “It really hurt my feelings to see people treating her that way.”
Despite such incidents, Bambrey believes people in Charlottesville are more tolerant of individuals with disabilities than are people in other places. She cites in particular the Downtown Mall, where business owners know many of the people in Bambrey’s adult activity group by name. Some even keep candy jars on hand specifically for their visits.
But even though many people– including some of the “normal” kids– are nice to Meghan, Bambrey maintains that “those people are not her friends,” at least in any equal sense. Meghan, Bambrey believes, needs to be around other people like herself.
Indeed, once Meghan began attending special classes at Burley Middle School, Bambrey says, “She thrived.”
Now a junior, Meghan is excited about attending Albemarle High’s junior prom. She has a date already, with a boy she met through the City’s Parks and Rec program; Bambrey will drive the couple to and from the dance.
Meghan also has a part-time job in the Martha Jefferson Hospital laundry room, and she plays on a softball team.
Bambrey says her goal is for Meghan to eventually live independently from her parents, either in a group home or with a roommate.
“I don’t want her to be helpless when I’m no longer here,” Bambrey says.
And she wants the same things for Meghan that she wants for her other three children: “I want her to have a job; I want her to participate in activities; and I would love for her to meet someone and get married.”