͞Kids are more resilient than you think. That͛s a statement many well-meaning people often make to parents whose children are going through difficult circumstances. While it may be true in many cases, the fact is, when our children are hurting, so are we. And we remember those difficult times more acutely than our children do. It͛s the benefit of hindsight that eventually allows us to see just how strong and brave our kids can be. That scenario was evident during interviews with the Morgan Family of Parkville, Mo. Michelle and Tom Morgan are parents of five children. Second to the oldest are twins Connor and Avery, age 18, who were born prematurely at 28 weeks with cerebral palsy and various digestive and intestinal system health concerns. The rest of the family includes 19-year-old Ian, who attends Gannon University in Erie, Pa., 14-year-old Wyatt, and 7-year-old Rose.
While simultaneously proud of their achievements and excited for the next phase in their lives, recounting Avery and Connor͛s entrance into the world and subsequent surgeries was very emotional for Michelle and Tom Morgan. In May, the teens will graduate from Park Hill South High School. Connor has earned a scholarship to play baseball at William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa, where he will study business, and Avery will the the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Mo. She aspires to a career in fashion design or merchandising. While acknowledging that their children have had to deal with challenges, this is a family with a can-do attitude. ͞We believe all of our children can do anything they put their minds to. It just might be more work for some than others,͟ said Michelle. That has included various sports for Connor—flag football, lacrosse, swimming, wrestling, and of course, baseball. ͞Since he was about four years old, Connor has always loved baseball,͟ said Tom. Michelle is a dance instructor and all of the Morgan kids have taken dance classes—boys and girls, alike. ͞I give Mom credit for dance helping me become more athletic,͟ said Connor. Avery has continued to take dance into her teen years, including hip hop, tap, and jazz. She also performs with a Lithuanian Folk Dance group with her Mom during the annual Kansas City Ethnic Enrichment Festival. She͛s working toward her Gold Award in Girl Scout Troop 1299. For her Gold Award project, she hopes to read to children at Children͛s Mercy Hospital. Both teens have jobs. An auspicious beginning Avery was born with a diaphragmatic hernia and Connor with intestinal malrotation, which added up to half a dozen surgeries and as many as 30 hospitals stays each before the twins were school age. ͞During the first five years of their lives, we joked that we had our own preferred customer parking spot at Children͛s Mercy Hospital because we were there so much,͟ said Michelle. Both were diagnosed with cerebral palsy before they were two years old. ͞Avery has always been happy, smiling, and upbeat, while Connor was a walking party—always goofing off and joining in with other kids,͟ said Tom. ͞As he͛s gotten older, he͛s still good-natured, but has become quite serious and focused also.͟While in fourth grade, Avery finally received some health relief when doctors discovered and removed a dead section of her bowel. Throughout elementary and middle school they received Botox injections to try to improve lower limb spasticity. Finally, during sixth-grade Connor͛s heel cord was cut to improve his mobility. Later, prior to starting high school, Avery underwent the same procedure. The early years were filled with physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech, special education, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for Avery and a 504 Plan for Connor. Yet, Avery and Connor shrug off most of this—except for wearing braces and receiving Botox injections. ͞Especially during elementary school, kids would ask me every day why I had to wear a brace,͟ said Avery. She says she would be the matter of fact about it and explain that it helped her walk, but it was annoying to have to repeat herself all of the time. ͞I hated wearing them [braces],͟ said Connor. ͞Kids can be judgmental. But at some point you have to come to terms with it and decide you don͛t care what other people think,͟ he added. And true to his passion, he disliked the Botox injections because ͞I felt like they were affecting my game,͟ he said of a decrease in pitching speed. ͞In seventh grade I was throwing 65 mph but in eighth
grade my speed had really dropped.͟ Today, his fastball is about 75 mph, and he also throws a cutter, curveball, and changeup. Tom Morgan remembers a t-shirt slogan that sums up their kids͛ attitude on life. ͞It said ͚I see disability with the D I S crossed off,͟ he said. ͞During a time when he was playing flag football, Connor wanted to be the quarterback even though he didn͛t know anything about it. It doesn͛t matter want it is, he͛s game and all in,͟ said Tom. ͞Avery is a hard worker and extra focused. We spend several hours together on homework every night, but she doesn͛t mind working three times harder than everyone else,͟continued Tom. Even when he͛s traveling for work, ͞Tom is the homework master, making use of Skype, phone, and email,͟ said Michelle. Not willing to be limited in her education, Avery is now taking College Algebra for dual credit. Although she had to take the standardized test that allowed for the college credit three times before passing the requirement. She also makes use of a Support Block, where she receives individualized assistance with the classes she takes. Trust the System When Connor and Avery were born, the Morgans had three children under the age of two. ͞Ian was just 15 months old. We had to simply live one day at a time,͟ said Michelle. She recalls how invaluable the Missouri State early intervention program called First Steps was. Various specialists came to the house to provide services for Connor and Avery. Later the twins attended a special education preschool through Park Hill School District, which included bus transportation. Michelle advises other parents of special needs children: ͞You have to believe in the system. Don͛t fight the system. There have always been lots of good people willing to work with our kids. Be a partner with teachers. Parents can͛t expect for all of the child͛s special needs to be the teacher͛s problem. Look for ways to work with the school district not against them.͟ When asked what grade she would give the Park Hill School District, Michelle said: A+. Her one criticism. ͞Card systems providing rewards for students with high grades and high attendance, by their nature exclude special needs kids. Instead, these children should be judged on an individual basis in order to qualify for the same rewards as everyone else.͟However, Tom adds, ͞You still have to be an advocate for your children. Find medical and education professionals that have the same vision for improvement and success as you do.͟Strength of Character Avery͛s dream is to study fashion to either become a designer or to own a retail business. Since about age 13 she has idolized actress, singer, and fashion designer Selena Gomez. ͞I love her fashion sense. She͛s a good inspiration,͟ said Avery, who currently works at Forever 21 and enjoys helping customers put outfits together that fit their personality. Despite the fact that vision impairments make it difficult for her to cut a straight line, Avery has made several outfits in fashion design classes that she͛s very proud of. She will participate in UCM͛s Thrive Program, a two-year residential college experience for intellectually challenged adults. The program provides alternative admissions requirements. ͞Thrive would be a good stepping stone toward pursuing a career, and UCM has a fashion degree program. I have high expectations for myself. I want to earn Cs or better in college. I͛m taking college algebra as dual credit to show that I can do this,͟ said Avery. Her back up plan is to study business at Park University, where she has already been accepted. She͛ll live on
campus, but it͛s close to home so she͛ll still have the support of family. Her advice for other special needs teenagers: ͞Don͛t quit.͟Meanwhile, Connor has had a single-minded determination to play baseball for as long as he can remember. ͞Connor has always been adaptive and determined. He figures out how to work around physical limitations,͟ said Tom. Michelle recalls that Connor was not deterred by the inability to balance on one leg and lift the other over when he was learning to ride a bike. Instead, he straddled the back to get on. The same is true for baseball. ͞As a pitcher, I don͛t have to run, which is a challenge with cerebral palsy. Instead, I can focus on the mechanics of getting the ball across the plate,͟ he said. He credits his coach Shawn Sedlacek of The Complete Game with helping him to become the pitcher he is today. Sedlacek is a former MLB pitcher with the Kansas City Royals. During his Freshman and Sophomore years of high school, Connor tried out for the swim team and the wrestling team for the dual purpose of staying in shape for baseball tryouts in the spring and for the fun of it. ͞He can͛t wrestle on his feet, but the coach adapted things for Connor when he realized that once Connor had the opponent on the mat, they were on equal footing athletically,͟ said Tom, commenting on Connor͛s upper body strength. One year he received the ͞Rat Mat͟ award for the most dedicated team member. When Connor didn͛t make the high school baseball team his Sophomore year, he didn͛t let that stop him. ͞It grinds my gears when people give up,͟ he said. ͞I asked myself why would I stop now after I͛ve invested so much in preparing for this game. I had to keep going. I believe that to be the best at the position you play means that you need to understand everything about what you do. Stay focused. Find another way.͟ To his credit, Connor constantly pushes his physical limitations—even working as a lifeguard at the YMCA. Like all parents of teenagers about to leave for college, Tom and Michelle worry. For their daughter, they worry about boys, of course. And they worry about her ability to be self-reliant. ͞Driving may not ever be a possibility for Avery. We still have that challenge to tackle,͟ said Michelle, ͞but we know she͛ll ask for help if she needs it.͟͞Connor, on the other hand, doesn͛t want any special attention,͟ remarked Tom, who says Connor can be disorganized and forgetful. They hope he remembers that he͛s at college to get an education, not to just play baseball. Asked what they like best about their family, Connor and Avery agreed, ͞We͛re big. We͛re loud. We go with the flow. It͛s never quiet and there͛s always something going on.͟Tracy Bennett is a freelance writer and owner of Mighty Mo Media Partners, a public relations, media strategy, and event planning company. She specializes in connecting small businesses to media outlets, especially in niche or trade industries. She is a mother to two teenagers, one of which has ADHD. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cover and Family Photos: Wendy Cantwell is a portrait photographer living in Lee’s Summit, Mo. As the owner of Cantwell Creations Photography for the past 7 years, she has been photographing families, seniors, and newborns with an emphasis on small children. Wendy is an on-location natural light
the photographer that works in the Kansas City metro area. To find more information visit www.cantwellcreations.com.