This article appeared in Home Life’s February 2022 newsletter
My mother-in-law, Reba, was a pear-shaped Italian-American woman who was short on legs and long on patience. She wielded a wooden spoon with the skill of Rachel Ray, one of her favorite TV chefs, or an old-fashioned school matron depending on who was hungry or who needed a quick redirect.
When her kids were in high school and spent more and more time away from home, and her, she needed a way to keep busy. She began working at a group home in her rural Missouri town of 5,000, which a few years later dropped to 3,000 after coal operations shut down, her mine-worker husband was forced into an early retirement, and her children left for college.
In the grand tradition of Italian mothers, she doted on her son and daughter, or rather spoiled them depending on your perspective. She bought them trendy clothes, from stores my parents couldn’t afford, and slipped them gas money on the weekend. If she had to work on a Friday or Saturday night, which was often, we’d make a stop by the group home she worked at so my boyfriend-now-husband could pick up a few dollars to take me out. To his credit, he also made time to hug his momma, whom he loved with his whole heart. I knew then that was a very good sign, and 30 years later I’m happy to say I wasn’t wrong.
Those living in the group home loved Reba like a mother, and they gleefully showered hugs and squeals on my husband – and me – the few times I went inside. She made their dinner, using the wooden spoon only for its intended purpose, made sure they took their medications, helped them through showers, washed their clothes, tucked them in. She only wanted what was best for them, and perhaps to find a few minutes to herself, when the house was quiet, to read a magazine or watch late-night TV.
Reba’s heart was in the right place, but I wasn’t so sure of my own. Although I had compassion for the lives her group home family led because of disability, I was deeply insecure and self-conscious in their presence – and ashamed for feeling that way. I didn’t know how to act. I didn’t know what to say. What to do.
Thankfully, Reba did. Her grandson, my son, was born in 2003 and diagnosed with epilepsy a year later. He would soon get additional diagnoses of autism and I/DD. She adored him like she did her other grandchildren, smothering him in hugs and kisses and making him eggs, or spaghetti, or whatever his big chocolate-brown eyes desired.
I’ve thought of her and “her” group home a lot since she died in 2017. My son is now 18, and I, like Home Life, turn 50 this year. I joined the Home Life board for them both – and for those I’d never met but whom I knew needed all the support and love a community can give. I also joined for me, so that I could learn more about the fragile safety net that exists for our most vulnerable.
The greatest fear of everyone I know raising a child living with disability is what happens to them when we’re gone. Family members are well-intentioned, but aging. And no one, I thought, can love my son like me.
Except perhaps Reba. Or direct support professionals, who for me are “a Reba.” Thankfully, she’s not the only person with a selfless heart who loves people not her own, like her own. Although my son wants to live with us for now, I know that one day he may want to live with his peers, or we may need a community to care for him. It’s comforting to know that organizations like Home Life will be there, whether through a group home or supported living. Instead of being scared, I’m grateful.
I’m happy to play a small part in helping this agency ensure that those in its care live with agency and support, get the physical care they need, and most importantly, know that they’re loved. And it’s why I ask others to do the same. I never imagined, as a love-struck 17-year-old, that one day my child would need a Reba. What a tremendous gift they’ve given me, and what a gift it is to support others.
Kathryn Stroppel is vice president of Home Life’s board and is director of marketing and communications for Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. She earned a journalism degree in 1994 and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in organizational leadership. She and her husband, David, moved from Missouri in 2011 and have two children, Aidan, 18, and Ava, 15. They live in Corvallis and enjoy camping and hiking, spending time at the coast and enjoying Willamette Valley wines.