Life in Claremont key to development

Charles and Debra White, both former athletes, are no strangers to the principles of steadfast discipline and hard work, fundamentals they have transferred to their lives as parents to 11-year-old Payton, a student at Claremont’s Danbury Elementary School.

When doctor’s diagnosed Payton with cerebral palsy and said he would never crawl, let alone walk, those natural instincts kicked in.

“They sat us down and told us he would have a laundry list of problems: he would never be able to sit up, never be able to chew food, never be able to crawl or walk. It was just a list of never, never, nevers,” Ms. White recalled, “but I was like, you don’t know me. He might not have a quote-on-quote normal life, but we are going to do things.”

“You just love the kid to death and just try to do the best you can,” Ms. White continued.

In finding homeopathic treatments to help Payton, nonverbal and unable to walk without assistance, the Whites have tried it all: acupuncture, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, magnet therapy, even a stem cell trial. In the summer of 2010, Ms. White, Payton and a caregiver traveled to Claremont for a week to give Danbury’s Conductive Education program, ConductAbility, a test.

Founded more than 60 years ago, Conductive Education centers itself around the concept of neuroplasticity, or the idea that the brain can reorganize itself by forming new neural connections if taught how to do so. At Danbury, Conductive Education teachers work with students to do just this—incorporating rhythm and movement with verbal tasks. In a recent ConductAbility class, Danbury students took turns kicking a small red ball, instructed to first kick it with their right foot, and later with their left.

“[Conductive Education] is a teaching method, not therapy,” said Danbury Conductive Education teacher Alicia Chatham. “It’s about ‘habilitating’ instead of rehabilitating, learning how to live with what you have.”

No stranger to physical therapy, Ms. White was a firm believer in Conductive Education’s methodology that goes beyond simply working with the body and the muscles.

“You have to fix the signals in the brain if you want to change the body,” Ms. White notes. “Otherwise you are just jerry-rigging the body and as soon as you stop stretching him, he is going to go right back.”

The class proved monumental for Payton. By the end of the summer, he had made significant strides, standing with the assistance of his teachers and a special walker, socializing and focusing in a way Ms. White had not seen before. It was a noticeable difference to both his teachers and his mother.

“He just seemed to be more attentive when you talked to him and did well with the walker. He was chewing better and had improved his grip,” Ms. White said, who was particularly impressed with the improvement to his left hand, which is typically very rigid. “Nobody had even thought about working with his left hand. I was flabbergasted.”

Though they lived clear across the country in Chicago, Illinois, they knew what their next step would have to be, struggle or no struggle.

“We fell in love with the program,” Ms. White remembered. “I called my husband and I told him we have to move.”

Making the move

Being able to enroll Payton in a Conductive Education program was the realization of a dream for the Whites, who had been struggling to find a program that wasn’t filled to capacity. The program in their hometown was booked solid, and so was the next closest program in Detroit, Michigan. Refusing to give up, Ms. White took to the internet and found Danbury Elementary School. She was immediately drawn to the school’s integrated programming, providing Payton with the opportunity to attend regular classes while receiving training with ConductAbility. California’s sunny skies didn’t hurt either, in more ways than one. The harsh Chicago winters were proving to be counterproductive for Payton, according to his parents.

“During the winter months in Chicago, when you are in a wheelchair, you can’t get out. You are stuck inside,” Ms. White explained. “And we were noticing that in the spring he would make these great physical gains with his walker and he could be outside on his bike and his legs would get stronger and bigger, and then all that would go away with the winter.”

Their Chicago townhome started to become a problem as well. As Payton grew, it became harder for him to crawl up and down the stairs of his 4-story townhome. Unable to navigate the stairs himself, his parents would have to carry him, but as the 11-year-old boy continued to grow, it became difficult.

“He was getting bigger and I’m getting older,” Mr. White joked. “It wasn’t working out.”

The Whites were pleasantly pleased to find Claremont as “the land of ranch-style homes,” sprawling one-story homes perfect for Payton. However, settling into their dream home proved to be a tedious, and occasionally frustrating, process. With the Claremont housing market at a lull, it took a few months for them to find a reasonable home, and when they did locate one, they were told it would not be immediately available for move-in. Because Chicago’s real estate market was equally stagnant. Ms. White was forced to stay behind with the house and the belongings in hopes of finding a buyer.

With a couple of blow-up mattresses, a recliner, stereo and TV set, Mr. White and Payton set up home in a Claremont rental in time for the beginning of Danbury’s school year in the fall of 2011. The situation wasn’t ideal and at first Payton’s progress took a few steps back as he adjusted to the changes.

“He was clearly unhappy and ready to go back to Chicago,” Ms. White said. “He had a hard time adjusting to the change in his routine, getting used to the new house, new friends, new caregiver. He was bonding with his old caregivers.”

Ms. White joined her family in Claremont that December and while the family had to weather some more changes—moving back and forth between hotels and rentals during home renovations—the Whites have finally settled comfortably into their Miramar Avenue home. Payton is able to navigate the home with ease and loves swimming in the backyard swimming pool.

Since establishing their new home base, the milestones have continued to mount for Payton. When asked about the biggest improvement, both parents’ answer is instantaneous: his decision-making.

“Before it was always a guessing game, and he would become frustrated, and rightly so,” Ms. White said. “Can you imagine all day long just being dictated on what to do. These sorts of things help him out a lot.”

“He is able to have more control of his life,” Mr. White added.

His teachers have also noted the improvements. While noting that Payton used to take more of an observer’s role in class, he is now an active participant, initiating movement rather than waiting for tasks to be assigned.

“He is focused and more aware of his surroundings,” Ms. Catham said, adding that he is much more calm and collect in pointing out what it is he wants.

The Whites say their son the new strides are allowing Payton the chance to express the typical pre-teen that he is, eager to get out and exercise, with the help of a specially-made bike, and a natural social butterfly, going out to lunch, the mall and the movies with his new Danbury friends.

“He doesn’t even want anything to do with us,” his parents joked.

As Payton continues to make strides with the help of ConductAbility—he has already taken steps with the assistance of teachers and a conductive education ladder—his parents appreciate Danbury’s hands-on approach, similar to their mentality all along.

“[At Danbury] they challenge him. It’s not like he’s just sits there coloring doing arts and crafts, which is fine within reason, but they give him that extra necessary push,” Mr. White said.

The Whites look forward to continuing to play an active role in their son’s continued development with the help of the Danbury team. They stay as active with their son as possible and are currently preparing to install railing along the hallways to aid him with his walking.

“His teachers, the aids, they have all been fantastic,” Ms. White said. “Everyone works together as a team with us so we can give him his best chance in life.”

To the Whites, the gifts ConductAbility gives their son are immeasurable.

“He is just a lot more at peace,” she said.

—Beth Hartnett


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