This August, my family and I attended our ninth Joni and Friends Family Retreat. The sponsoring organization, Joni and Friends, has retreats like this around the nation to give disability-affected families a respite from daily routine. This particular camp had a unique way of combining fun, faith, and friendship. Over the years at these retreats, we have become friends with Katy Thuleen and her family.
“Our son Zach was born unexpectedly at 31 weeks,” said 49-year-old Thuleen in a telephone interview. “The doctors said he’d have no recognition of his surroundings and no ability to function physically or cognitively. They suggested we give him up for adoption, and said if we kept him our marriage wouldn’t survive and his many needs would financially devastate us. They also said if we kept him, we shouldn’t have any other children because they shouldn’t be born into that kind of environment.”
The reason: Zach was born with cerebral palsy, which is caused by brain damage occurring before, during or shortly after birth. It affects the brain’s ability to control muscle movement.
After hearing the naysayers, Thuleen and her husband did hear encouraging words from one pediatrician, who said that if they treated Zach as if he had a disability, he would act as if he had one. “And if we treated him like any other kid, he said, the sky would be the limit,” added Thuleen. “That is what we chose.”
This November 1, Zach turned 20. Not able to stand or balance, he powers himself using a manual wheelchair and works two days a week as a food shelf volunteer. Recently, he has been learning independent living skills, including mastering new IPod software to enhance his ability to communicate well with others.
This child who would have no recognition of his surroundings nor ability to function physically or cognitively apparently has proved the naysayers wrong. In most areas of life, Zach seems hardly affected at all by his disability. Besides contributing to his amazing development over the years, his parents have had two other children, remained married, and haven’t been financially devastated.
“Zach is a computer junkie who is happy and has great friends,” said Thuleen. “Unlike many people, he has a pure faith (in God) that he doesn’t question. He’s the kind of kid that if you take time to get to know him, he grabs your heart.”