The Boy in the Green Wheelchair

The Boy in the Green Wheelchair

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

The Boy in the Green Wheelchair

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.

Theodore Roosevelt

After I taught my classes in urban planning at Arizona State University, I drove slowly down an unfamiliar Mesa street. Stomach knotted, I was looking for an old converted motel that was now used as a homeless shelter. My tan and white terrier on the seat beside me sensed my nervousness and comfortingly nosed my leg. “Luke, I hate this,” I muttered to him. “I don’t know why I let Debbie talk me into it.” Becoming a therapy team with my dog, as my friend Debbie had with her dog, was one thing, but the other side of that coin—volunteering at a homeless shelter for at-risk kids—was another. Finally, I spotted the shelter adjacent to a secondhand store.

One look at those two old buildings and I was right back on the poverty row of my eighteen years as a foster child—I’d been abandoned in infancy without adoption permission. I’d worked hard to ditch that welfare life I’d hated! That’s why I gave money regularly to similar causes but had never gotten personally involved. I’d even attempted suicide as a teen to get free of that life. After that failure, with the help of a kind teacher and a young group-home leader, I’d concentrated on education as my escape tool. It worked. I won scholarships all the way through a doctorate at Harvard—me, the little black girl who’d flunked first grade and was thought mentally disabled. I’d studied like mad and made it. But here I was, back in that hopeless situation.

I parked, and with Luke on his leash, I stepped inside the door amid a sea of unkempt kids who surrounded the after-school snack table. In those kids, I faced myself as a child: their uncombed hair, their faded, mismatched clothes, and their listless, lonely eyes. I pushed those thoughts away and tried to concentrate on what I was supposed to do. “They’re five to twelve years old,” Debbie had said of the shelter kids. “But what we have right now are mostly five to eight. Use puzzles to teach them hand-to-eye coordination, or play checkers with them. Or help them with homework. Or just listen. Remember, your dog is the one who gains the kids’ trust because they haven’t always found adults trustworthy.” I decided to glue myself to Debbie, who was getting out blue and pink Play-Doh in a far corner.

But no such luck. Several youngsters moved over to me because Luke was wagging his tail and inviting them with dancing brown eyes.

The sight of a frail, little boy in a green wheelchair, his arms moving almost spastically, caught my eye. I realized he was the youngster Debbie said had been a normal baby until beaten by his mother’s boyfriend. It brought a lump to my throat. I wanted to bolt out the door, but I wouldn’t let myself.

The next few days I played checkers with the kids, worked Play-Doh into figures with them, and helped with homework. But nothing drew the boy in the green wheelchair into any group.

He refused to join in, even when Debbie and I started a story-composing time, which became popular with the other kids. We’d start a story about Luke, throwing out a beginning, and the children made up the terrier’s adventures from there.

While we worked on making up stories, I watched our nonjoiner. Loren was different from the others. His blue eyes were shiny, and he wore a sweet smile. His sandy hair was neatly combed, his clothes were pressed and clean. He was close to eight but so thin he seemed six. The beating had damaged the motor area of his brain. He could scramble out of the wheelchair. But when he got to the floor, he could only use his arms to crawl and dragged his useless legs behind. But crawl he did! Maybe he avoids the groups for fear he can’t keep up. Could I help him gain confidence?

He rarely spoke, and when he did, his words were garbled. I tried to get him to talk to me, but often without response. He was used to pointing to things he wanted. He’d point to a fruit drink, but I’d make him ask for it before handing it to him. And when I asked how his school day was, I wouldn’t accept “fine” for an answer. It became our game, and his eyes would shine when he said a word, however garbled.

I found myself spontaneously hugging him, something I’d rarely done with anyone, since I was never hugged as a child. But he still shied away from joining a group. Only after I’d worked with him several weeks on letter recognition, tracing the letters with his hand, and making those letters’ sounds did I get him to join my group one day.

I was working with a small circle of youngsters who were taking turns playing with Luke. When it came Loren’s turn with the dog, I said, “Tell me what you want to do, Loren.”

Suddenly, eyes dancing, Loren said, “I want to pet Luke!” A whole sentence said clearly! Tears crowding my eyes, I brought my terrier to him, and Luke nuzzled the boy’s head. Gently massaging the dog’s soft tan fur between his fingers, the little boy smiled rapturously. I dropped to one knee in front of the green wheelchair and hugged the boy and dog.

From that moment on, I knew these kids and I were in sync. I also realized with an aching heart how much I’d miss Loren and each of the others when they left the shelter. But I knew more children who needed me would take their place.

How thankful I am that Debbie got me personally involved. I have worked with at-risk kids in the homeless shelter for several years now, and the hours I teach them and work and play with them are most rewarding. The experience has even helped to heal my own difficult childhood.

Theresa Cameron as told to Jeanne Hill

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