As the years add up, I suppose most people reflect from time to time on both the high and low points in their lives, as well as those special experiences that may have changed or influenced them in some way. In my case, as I approach my 83rd birthday, one such experience was my involvement with the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Los Angeles County during the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
It started when the company I was working for at the time (in downtown Los Angeles) joined with other major corporations in the area to lend employees to a program that provided full-time personnel to various charities for a period of six months. In my case, I was assigned to UCPA to plan a move of its offices to a new location.
As a result of that assignment, and after I had moved on to pursue a career in the accounting profession, I was invited to join the UCPA’s Board of Directors. At the time, I didn’t know much more about its work than what I had learned some years earlier in the course of helping move its facility.
In those days, the board was somewhat large, about 25 members, many of whom had children or family who were afflicted with cerebral palsy, and the meetings were often very contentious. Long story short, as I became more involved, the disagreements reached a point where another board member, who was president of the AFL-CIO union of Los Angeles County, and I reacted to an argument and stepped in to mediate. The result was that I suddenly found myself elected president of the organization.
My involvement spanned a period of about seven years, including 4½ years as president, and it was an experience that changed my life. Not so much serving on the board of directors or being president, but the exposure to the individuals who suffered with CP and their families.
A little background might help provide some perspective:
» 1) About one-third of all the children who are born with CP are (or were) also mentally disabled, some quite severely.
» 2) In the l960s, researchers found that one of the major causes of CP was German measles during pregnancy. As a result, after a vaccine was developed and became widely available, the incidence of CP at birth dropped by about one-third.
» 3) The degree of disability varies widely in those who are afflicted with CP, ranging from relatively minor physical problems to severe disability that may make it difficult or impossible for some victims to stand or walk, communicate effectively and/or may make them wheelchair bound.
» 4) The incidence of divorce in families with CP children was significantly higher than the general population. Don Imus recently noted that it is up about 80 percent in families that have a child with major health problems, such as cancer.
However, perhaps the most compelling fact about children with CP is their loving and trusting nature. They invariably seem to want to establish a connection with others. Initially, at least for me, given my nature, it was a bit difficult to relate to them, but that improved over time.
At first, as a board member, I didn’t have much contact with the children or adults who had CP. The primary focus of our role was raising money, in which I became very active.
However, over time, as president, I became increasingly involved with the services and developing living facilities for CP patients. The impact of that experience changed my life. For the better, I might add.
Not only did it increase my understanding and appreciation for people who have serious health problems, but also for the families who, through no fault of their own, had to cope with the difficulties of raising a child with a severe handicap, but also had the added burden of providing for their permanent care when they (the parents) were no longer able or available to look after them. It is one thing to be responsible for caring for a child, but quite another to ensure the long-term care of that child when they become an adult.
If you are lucky enough to have or had children who are (were) healthy, active and relatively free of health problems, you might give some thought to how much different your life would be or might have been if you had the added responsibility of not only looking after a seriously involved child for years on end but also finding a way to care for them after you are no longer able or available to do so. The cost of dealing with these problems can be overwhelming and is often far beyond the financial resources of many of the parents who have CP children. The day-to-day responsibility of caring for their child often becomes the central focus of their lives and can be overwhelming.
My life has never been the same because of my experience with cerebral palsy, and I am grateful for it. The lessons I learned about coping with adversity from both the victims of CP and their parents changed me in ways I did not recognize until later in my life, and as the years passed, it led me to look for new opportunities to serve others in the communities where I have lived.
— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.