Don’t tell Sheila Russell she can’t.
As in "You can’t handle two in a wheelchair."
Because the petite brunette?who lives with her husband, Tommy, on Yalobusha County Road 106 near the Water Valley airport?is going to.
The Russells are in the process now of adopting a seven-year-old girl. That’s not unusual, except this little girl has special needs. Her development has been impaired by what tests are expected to confirm is Rett’s Syndrome, a rare developmental disorder which begins in early infancy, primarily in girls.
Adopting a child with special needs is unusual. Even more rare is that this seven-year-old, who has now been in their home as a foster child for about six weeks, will become a sister to Christina, 14, whom the Russells adopted one year ago. Christina also has special needs. Hers stem from Cerebral Palsy. The idea of adopting a second child with special needs, including wheelchair transportation, is what brought on the latest chorus of "you can’ts."
"If God gives her to me, then God will supply my needs to take care of her," Sheila replies.
Currently, those needs make a lengthy list, including a van with space and lifting equipment to handle the girls’ wheelchairs.
"We want to do a north Mississippi ?Extreme Home Makeover,’" Tommy Russell laughed. Construction is underway to remodel their home’s carport into a wheelchair-accessible wing with bedrooms and bathroom that allow sufficient room to maneuver.
James Bennett of the Valley Good Sams was among those helping with that carport remodeling last week. Other projects the Sams help with include raising money for the Baptist Children’s Village at Reedy Acres, he said. "We just decided to help this family," Bennett added.
That afternoon, Bennett had jack-hammered through carport concrete to open a path for a trench which will carry the bathroom plumbing. As Bennett stopped to evaluate the most recent step toward remodeling completion, he identified the craftsmen, tools and items badly needed to make complete the "extreme makeover."
"Bricklayer, carpenter and laborer, …we need some newer dry wall tools. And a septic tank," Bennett said.
Another friend, Paul E. Griffin of Batesville, who worships with the Russells at the Hosanna Family Worship Center at Pope, said "they still need another $7,000 to $8,000 of materials in addition to the labor" to complete the wheelchair-accessible remodeling.
Once the old carport has been converted into bedroom and bathrooms, the Russells will need a covered area behind the old carport where the girls can be loaded into the van?that van that they don’t have yet.
There’s also a need for a covered walkway at their house’s front entrance. Then the Russells wouldn’t have to struggle with pushing those wheelchairs for 50 yards up the gravel driveway to reach the school bus.
The needs of Christina and her sister?who must remain unnamed until the adoption process is complete?are so many. But Sheila and Tommy Russell have already supplied the love of a mother and father and a home, something that once would have been thought impossible for these girls to realize.
"Her mother OD’d on heroin," Sheila said of Christina. "She had no place really to go back to; it was either in an institution or nowhere," Sheila said.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the beginning of the circumstances that brought Sheila and Tommy together with Christina. Back in the 1990s, they were the owners of "Wonder Years," a thriving day care business located next to Batesville’s Panola Mills, then the county’s largest employer. They cared for up to 125 children while their parents worked.
Even then, an old friend recalled, Sheila could spot some child in need of special attention, including one little girl whose unkempt appearance and matted hair led Sheila to take her home with her to spend the night. There the little girl was the object of lavish attention and bubble baths, the friend recalled.
After Panola Mills went south, the Russells bought Dusty’s Donuts, a bakery in Batesville. To her delight, many of Sheila’s former charges discovered her there when they came for donuts. After two years in the bakery business, where, "You can sell a million donuts, but you only make a penny a donut," Sheila laughed; the Russells made a drastic change. They moved to the Baptist Children’s Village at Reedy Acres in Water Valley.
"We had put in application to become house parents, so we just sold everything we had."
Sheila didn’t take to house parenting. "Tommy loved it; I didn’t like group living," she said. But on Water Valley, they could both agree: "We just loved the way it looked."
But when they left the village, three kids wanted to come with them, so Tommy and Sheila got approved as foster parents, a process that includes training from the Department of Human Services and other entities and extensive background checks.
Providing foster care for those children led to other children. "I bet we’ve had 50 kids," she said. Eventually the Russells upgraded their certification as foster parents from "emergency," meaning that they provided refuge on an immediate basis when human services personnel removed a child from threatening circumstances, to "therapeutic." That meant they were approved to care for children with special needs.
That’s how they met Christina. She was 10 years old and weighed 26 pounds when Sheila and Tommy met Christina. The tiny girl had been wasting away in a Pascagoula nursing home. "I didn’t figure she’d live until she got home," she said.
At first Sheila fed her with a dropper, "like a little bird." There were surgeries to loosen Christina’s limbs. "Somebody had whipped her and her hip was out of joint," Sheila said.
"She started responding to us," Christina’s adoptive mother continued. "She’s just blossomed."
The little girl’s bloom was no doubt enhanced by Sheila’s determination that Cerebral Palsy not sideline Christina. She can’t walk; she can’t talk, but her last three birthdays have been celebrated with skating parties, her mother said. Her skating friends pull her across the floor in her wheelchair, she added. "She loved it."
The outings are mutually beneficial, Sheila said. "Kids don’t know how to deal with special needs kids."
"You don’t realize how much they get neglected," Sheila continued, describing her increasing advocacy for creating access for people with special needs in schools, parks and public places. "I probably didn’t notice it until it affected my life," Sheila admits.
But affect her life it did, and when the Russells found the little blonde seven-year-old in a facility in Booneville, "they said she never responded to anybody," Sheila said.
The little girl was lying on the floor, seemingly oblivious to anyone, her would-be adoptive mother said. After visiting with her about an hour, Sheila said that she picked her up and asked: " ___________, do you want to go home with me?"
When the little girl smiled, astonished facility staff marveled, and Sheila told her husband, "Tommy, she’s mine."
Now, after two months in the Russell home, the responses are continuous to Sheila, Tommy, Christina, and a young friend, Sarah Jenkins, who often helps the Russells with the girls’ care, and others.
Still, completing the adoption of the little girl is seven months away and not certain, but completing the accessible addition will help demonstrate the Russells’ physical ability to care for the girls.
Amid laughter, hugs and typical family pandemonium in their Yalobusha home, there is already much evidence of the Russells’ ability to care for them emotionally.
So just don’t tell Sheila Russell she can’t.