by Donna Payne
Heather Carroll’s family is made up of all shapes, sizes, colors, ages and abilities. And that’s just how she likes it.
Her children range in age from 5 to 27: one biological, Austin; and three adopted, Sarah, Kye and Gabriel. But her family is much bigger than that – it’s a village.
Sarah, 22, has intellectual disabilities and is very small – just 4½ feet tall. Gabriel, 5, has Down syndrome and is nonverbal. Because of the level of care they need, they qualify for home and community Medicaid Waiver, which helps provide services to people who would otherwise be in a nursing home or other facility to receive long-term care. In other words, they get to live with their family – or even more independently.
That’s where the Kistler Center comes in.
“When they added their waiver department, it just increased their value because they are able to serve that many more people – successfully,” Heather said. “Having somebody that Kistler has sent – has weeded out and found these wonderful people – makes me be able to sleep at night, because I know they’ve got Sarah’s best interest at heart, and Gabe’s. Because they’ve been there.”
That kind of security is paramount for both Heather and her children.
“Sarah was born in foster care and, around 7 or 8, was adopted by a family that basically traveled the country adopting children,” Heather said. “When DHS caught up with them, they had 13 children and they were all removed.”
Heather was working as a special education paraprofessional and Sarah was in her classroom. Once the children were removed from the family, they were placed in foster homes throughout the state. That’s when Sarah, as well as her sister for a time, came to live with Heather. She soon decided she wanted to adopt the girls, but Sarah’s sister chose not to be adopted.
Heather opened her home to more than just those two girls. The waiver program made it possible for the working mother to give Sarah a forever family. Staff provided through the Kistler Center assists in Sarah’s care and transportation, allowing Heather to continue to work. Eventually, it provided Sarah the opportunity to live apart from her mother and brothers.
“Sarah has gained her independence, thankfully, through that program,” Heather said. She has her own apartment, works at Abilities Unlimited and hangs out with friends and family on the weekends.
Cognitively, Sarah is probably about 7. She has very limited reading and writing skills but can sign her name, knows all of her siblings’ names and can write them. She also has type 2 diabetes and is on a strictly controlled diet. That, coupled with food insecurities from her earlier living environments, makes supervision essential. Her waiver staff fills that need.
“She knows she has diabetes but she thinks we’re trying to kill her,” her mom joked. “When it comes to specific things, I don’t play. Like Sarah’s health. It’s a battle every day. Her four staff and I have to be on the same page.”
Once Heather opened her door to foster children, in walked Kye. Heather was contacted about fostering him while facing a major surgery and declined. One month to the day after her surgery, she welcomed 5-month-old Kye into her home and later fostered his newborn brother. After about six months, Kye’s brother was adopted by a close friend of Heather’s so the boys will be raised knowing they’re brothers.
“I was done after I had Kye and they called me about Gabe. At that point, he was 2 and I thought, ‘I’m too old to have a 2-year-old,’ and here we are,” she said. “I’m an adopted child and grew up knowing it and people say, ‘Oh, that must be why you adopted.’ I don’t know what it was. There was a child that had nobody that needed something I could offer.”
Gabe, who started kindergarten this year, has Down syndrome and is nonverbal. Through physical, speech and occupational therapies at Kistler, he is learning to use a communication device with access to 4,000 words. His waiver staff helps with morning and evening routines at home, as well as provides transportation to and from the Kistler Center.
“It’s awesome to have this building (Kistler Center), a place for these guys to come and get what they need. Gabe’s ‘talker’ – they’re single-handedly why we have it. Without Kistler, he wouldn’t have a way to communicate,” Heather said.
“I could not have adopted these children as a single parent without outside help. The Kistler Center is the one that has provided that outside help to give these two children life,” Heather said. “Sarah, if she were still in DHS care, no one would ever have adopted her. And I couldn’t have done that if Sarah had not been able to have waiver. Period.”
While reflecting on the decisions she has made, the future also is on her mind.
“When I’m dead and gone – I’m 46, Gabe is 6 – I’m not going to outlive him, but there are things set up in his future that he will always have care because the Kistler Center provides that,” Heather said. “There’s always going to be someone there. There always has to be someone there. It’s far beyond me.”