Freelance Writer
Talking on ‘Soap Box’ About Worcester Mag. and Pet Rock
07.08.14 | No Comments
Category: A&E |Animal Activism

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soapbox3Charlene Arsenault discusses Pet Rock Fest, and Worcester Magazine, on WCCA’s Soapbox in 2008.

View the show here.

The Outsiders
07.08.14 | No Comments

Isolated, detached and misunderstood, kids once marginalized get the help they need. And Worcester is setting the example.

Ricky Simone can relate to Columbine. Not that he would ever do something so drastic, but let’s just say he’s “been there.”

He’s one of the Worcester kids that could have easily gotten lost in the system, a statewide system that critics say is terribly flawed, but one that advocates (and those very critics) maintain is not only better than most, but on the way to being fixed.

From a young age, Simone knew he was depressed. He didn’t know why, but he’d think about hurting himself or other people. He admittedly fails to see the gray areas in life; with him, things are black or white. He’ll be laughing and inside he’ll feel fat and ugly. It’s hard to know why a kid will become this way. It could be environment, or it could be genetics — or a combination.

Simone’s dad left his mother because “she did too much drugs and would come home high all the time.” She was gone from his life when he was about four. Since then, he’s lived at home with his dad and older brother and sister. For a long time, Simone thought he was bipolar, but was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress.

“When they explained it to me,” he says, “I was like, ‘Ohhh.’ It’s when you get panic attacks from something that reminds you of a traumatic past experience. Sometimes if people yell or raise their hands, it’ll become like that for me. Or if they say something, it’ll trigger something for me and I will get suicidal because I cannot really control it. This is a reaction to the beatings from babysitters and kids in school.”

By the time he was nine years old, Simone was made fun of to the point that he says he’d have visions of leaping from the third floor. Kids can be cruel, and Simone, in their eyes, was different — a target.

“I was born with a cleft palate,” says Simone. “My nose is crooked. I had really bad teeth when I was younger. They were crooked. I had braces, which I got made fun of for. Just everything. I was also really small back then. I was very small and skinny, so with kids, I got the worst. After my mom left, things went downhill from there and it just ended at the point where, when I was in the 10th grade, I just snapped. I couldn’t get out of it.”

He gets aggressive sometimes when he’s in panic mode, but has little recollection when it happens.

“That’s why I have had to be put on medications and restrained and put into programs and hospitals,” he says. “Sometimes I know why I am panicking. One time, I threw a hacky sack to my brother and he was going to throw it back and said ‘Let me hit you where I want to hit you,’ and that just made me react and I started crying. People yelling constantly will make me go into one of those panic states. Teachers yell, too — even the ones who are supposed to deal with issues yell at me. One slammed on the desk and I had to actually leave the school. If I stayed in the school, I was going to cut my wrists open. I go through suicidal feelings. They don’t go away. It’s something you need to work on and work with and try to overcome when they occur. It’s not something that is just going to go away. It’s not like a cold.”

It isn’t like a cold, no, but those affected by a child’s mental illness are trying to squash not only the stigma that surrounds it, but also push for programs, laws and initiatives that treat the illness as if it were like diabetes.

The kids who are struggling

Though the children were chatty and upbeat at the Children’s Friend offices (where they meet for various groups), it isn’t indicative of how they are outside of these walls. But here, they find solace.

At school, a lot of these kids didn’t really talk — and still don’t — not to other students, not to teachers and not to their parents. Or they acted out in bizarre ways. Some of them landed in hospitals, juvenile court or foster care. That was both the result, and a contribution to their condition.

Chris White, who’s 16, has been going there since he was 13, and today is gearing up to give a speech at the mayor’s proclamation. And he’s led this talk for years, as well as at other presentations that advocate for children struggling with mental health issues. He, like Ricky Simone, is in a group called OTHERS (Other Teens Help Everybody Respect Self), which sits under the PAL umbrella. Open to teens 13-21, it’s a group that gets together both for fun and to give a youth’s voice to promoting anti-stigma campaigns and other initiatives relating to children’s mental health.

“They already feel different as it is,” says Jannelle Correa, youth director of PAL. “They feel like people don’t include them in a lot of things because they are different. ”

Remarkably well-spoken, outgoing and bright, White first came to OTHERS because of his half-sister Ashley, who was one of the original members.

“When my sister was in OTHERS, they went to Washington, D.C., for a national mental health conference,” says White. “They are presenting public service announcements. I went and saw what it was about and wanted to join.” Ashley Prew (right) and friends at the Children’s Friend House participating in the OTHERS program.

White has been diagnosed with a mood disorder, depression and ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), and has a “lot of behavior problems in school.” He also struggles with a learning disability due to hemispheric brain damage that happened when he was very young. The clues started as far back as preschool, where he’d throw things, launch into temper tantrums and not listen to teachers.

In therapy since he was five, White lives at home with his grandmother, and has since he was three, when DSS took him. Both of his parents were drug addicts and also had mental health issues, so he just couldn’t live with them, he says.

“I would be dead if I didn’t live with my grandmother,” says White. “It was a really dangerous situation. I never got any food, never was taken care of. They were both heroin addicts. They have gotten help. They have both been to prison and rehab. My dad was in prison for the majority of my life. And my mom has been in prison on and off.”

Because of his behavior issues, including pronounced anger issues, White was shuffled through 13 different schools. White complains a lot about how his needs were not met, or even noticed, from a very young age, and says he was picked on.

Frustrated by ignoring his demands, he feels bitter toward the public school system.

“In the beginning, I don’t think they dealt with me adequately,” says White. “I don’t think they understood how to best treat my needs. The schools weren’t following my accommodations. They had me in a class with learning disabilities. I have a learning disability, but it doesn’t affect my ability to do work. It affects my ability to learn. I actually passed the MCAS and I have good grades. But they had me in a class with kids that were really low-functioning, so I didn’t learn anything for like two years. I was with kids who had dyslexia, but I read at a very high level. I was made fun of all the time for being in that class.”

Now, White is at Central Mass. Academy and is “doing well.” Since his initial diagnoses, he’s been labeled with ODD, which is an inability to control his impulses appropriately.

“If someone tells me what to do, I want to do the opposite most of the time,” he says. Because of medication and getting into the right school, White is improving and plans on heading to college.

Ashley Prew, who turned 16 this month, initially came to OTHERS to support her friend. Now, she continues to attend, and her friend rarely goes. Labeled as being bipolar, having depression and being short-tempered by her psychiatrist, she hasn’t started taking medication yet.

Since her mom passed away unexpectedly in 2004, she says she’s been angry. Her mom had been off drugs for a good two years, but died of heart failure.

“It was really hard,” says Prew. “My grandmother signed me up for counseling. I live with my grandmother. I have a dad, but he left when I was, like, seven. I’ve been with my grandmother on and off my whole life.”

Her grandmother, she says, knew she needed help the day she punched a wall and ran away. Yeah, she ran to her friend’s house and went swimming, but we all know how that goes. Quiet in school, but prone to irrational outbursts, Prew is looking forward to getting on the right medication. And for her, OTHERS is an oasis.

“It’s just a place to see people that have, like, the same problems,” she says. “Just seeing how they deal with problems helps you deal with them.”

“Mario,” 17, also benefited when he found OTHERS. A big fan of bands like Tool and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mario plays the bass and hopes to someday play as well as his idol, Flea. At night, he’ll play with his band, and by day, he wants to be a marine biologist, as he loves being near the water. Right now, he does landscaping, goes to school, and is into sports. He’s popular in school, too. He’s got a stage name picked out, for when he’s famous: “Fro Boy.”

But there was a time he wouldn’t have spoken so positively. There was a time when he would steal cars, and he dabbled in drugs. Since the age of five, he’s been in and out of foster care. He landed in the hospital once, too, but doesn’t elaborate. “It’s hard for me to find structure,” says Mario, who has been diagnosed with a mood disorder. “I have to work a lot. I also have anger issues. I was on medication, but got off it because I was doing good and I’m doing good now.”

Heading out the door to attend the proclamation, we have to quickly ask about those cars: “No, I would never steal a car now,” he laughs.

Many argue that it is a crisis, as Dr. Douglas Ziedonis, professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, stated at a recent Children’s Mental Health Regional Forum. At the forum, it was reported that approximately 100,000 children in the Bay State are lacking the appropriate mental health care. There is a disconnect, they say, between the court system, the health system and the school system — as well as insufficient funds and systems in place to connect the school, the doctor and the court to the child.

Epicenter for mental health

On Tuesday, May 6, the offices at the Children’s Friend building on Cedar Street were hopping. Later that evening, the mayor was to declare Children’s Mental Health Month in Worcester for the eighth year. Worcester is the only city that recognizes the entire month, as opposed to the week that most mark. OTHERS gather at the Children’s Friend House in celebration of Children’s Mental Health Month.

Excited kids of all ages swarmed, eating pizza and ice cream sundaes and getting ready for the proclamation that kicks off an important month for them. For Worcester, this building is the epicenter for children and their families struggling with mental illness. It’s the home of the Worcester chapter of the Parent/Professional Advocacy League (PAL).

The chapter doesn’t only serve as an organizing arm for mental health advocacy; it is also part of an important model for the country because of its success. Worcester, it seems, has its act together.

“Worcester is definitely a leader,” says Meri Viano, who is a family support specialist working with PAL. She also has two children suffering with mental health and behavioral issues. “It’s a leader because it’s organized. We know how to collaborate and there is a level of respect for families.”

Rina Cavallini started the Worcester chapter of PAL five years ago, and her input is a crucial piece to this very model and movement. It started in earnest eight years ago, when Cavallini joined a group of parents and providers to drastically change the way children with mental health problems were dealt with. Together, this concerned group nabbed a $7 million dollar federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant to assist entire families affected by children with serious emotional disabilities.

The group had momentum and a focus. So along with the UMass Medical School, it established Worcester Communities of Care to properly use the money, which broke down into about $100,000 a year.

The group put families in touch with other advocates to assist them with issues such as understanding the school system. While involved with Communities of Care, Cavallini was hired at Community Healthlink to come up with a creative way to handle the funding and provide children and their families with “wraparound” services. Worcester has become innovative in its approach.

“Central Massachusetts has some standing models,” says Ziedonis. “In fact, this is the model of the country on wraparound services.” The wraparound approach recognizes that children with mental illness or emotional disturbances have a unique need for integrated and distinct services.

“It is a proven theory that when families are better able to deal with stress, children have better clinical outcomes,” said the press release announcing the federal grant. “For example, the entire family of a child with severe emotional disturbances who soils himself will be better able to cope with the disorder’s challenges if a treatment program can offer them financial assistance to purchase a washing machine so they don’t need to go to the Laundromat every day.”

Dr. Peter Metz agrees. Metz is the director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department at UMass Medical School and UMass Memorial Medical Center, and is a principal investigator. Metz says Worcester is easily a leader in the state, marked by the advantage of having those two successive six-year large federal grants. The first, he says, targeted children at risk of out-of-home placement, and the present one focuses heavily on diverting those with serious issues from the juvenile justice system.

“We had the attitude of being strength-based,” says Cavallini. “Let’s not look at the family and say what is wrong with the kid. Let’s talk about what is right with the family. You have no idea what a huge shift of thinking that was, especially to people like us who already felt so much shame. Parents were so beat up by the old way.” Suzanne Hannigan, project director for Communities of Care.

The “old way,” she says, lacked cohesiveness between schools, parents, providers and the kids. The rest of the state started to look at Communities of Care as a model of a “program that was actually working.”

“Families all over Central Massachusetts started coming to family support night,” says Cavallini. Five years ago, Cavallini was given money to start the Worcester chapter of PAL after Community Healthlink saw the strong united family movement that was growing in Worcester.

Renting a space at Children’s Friend, Cavallini was the director, and formed a steering committee of parents.

“We continued a lot of what we had been doing,” she says, “but the beauty was there was this autonomous family movement. It wasn’t connected to Community Healthlink anymore. It was bigger.”

Not only did the grant give Worcester federal recognition, but the landmark decision in the Rosie D. v. Romney case in 2006 helped validate the need for better mental health support as well. It found that the state was violating the federal Medicaid Act by failing to provide home-based mental health services to around 15,000 children. The decision drastically shifted, at least in its thinking, the way the state deals with mental health issues. Jannelle Correa, youth director for PAL, the Parent and Professional Advocacy League.

Cavallini passed the torch to newest director Cindy Cefaitis last year. Cavallini, who has a son who is bipolar, says she’ll continue to work in the field in some capacity.

“Other grant sites have actually used this model,” says Suzanne Hannigan, project director of the Central Massachusetts Communities of Care. “The effect it’s having is that the Department of Mental Health is talking to other sites about them doing the same thing. Parents are starting to get a voice in decision-making in state agencies and guiding public policy and procedure. They’re realizing it’s an important voice.”

Building on the Rosie D. case, Hannigan talks about the new legislation, called the Children’s Behavior Health Initiative, which would bring about many changes in the state’s system. More and more agencies, such as Children’s Hospital, are signing on to the legislation, which argues that screening should be routine in the schools and that private insurance providers must be required to play their part in addressing the crisis.

You’d need a degree in legislative deciphering to understand how this initiative works, who facilitates it, and how it intertwines with services and organizations that are already in place. Basically speaking, Metz says, it’ll provide an array of clinical services that are not currently available to children. Only children, that is, covered by MassHealth.

Still, Ziedonis warns that where other states have failed is when a decree such as the Rosie D case goes away, if legislation isn’t in place to support it, the resources fade away. “That is why people are speaking out so strongly,” he says. “It’s good that we have the initiative, but we want to make sure there is more of a guarantee that this will happen.”

The initiative’s effects will be gradual. The plan is to issue a request for responses from providers by June, and after an extensive bid process, announce contracts by Sept. 1, with the services up and running by April 1, 2009. This would only affect MassHealth children and their families, which roughly involves 7,000 to 12,000 eligible recipients.

“There is an awful amount of concern,” says Metz. “We know that there are many with private insurance who need a similar kind of approach. At the moment, they are not in this. There is certainly interest on many people’s parts that as this gets started, private companies are pressured, but this is a start.”

More resources needed

It’s what Simone and a lot of kids say would have helped them. He gets agitated when talking about school, arguing that they did little to stop the teasing he endured.

He harbors resentment toward the way his life was handled. He felt alone and largely ignored in terms of his special needs by the Worcester Public School system. Although he’s the funny guy in school now, he laments over being the odd man before, and how that stigma shattered his well-being.

“When I was young,” he says. “Nobody asked me questions that I thought were relevant. ‘How do you feel in school today, Ricky?’ Nobody asked me that. The schools fall short. They should make it where, when you go in for a checkup with your child, they should take the parents out of the room and give the child mental-health testing as if they were checking for scoliosis. They have to see a dentist. They have to see a doctor. They have to go to school. Testing should be in all of those places.”

Ziedonis maintains that the Worcester Public Schools have been extremely collaborative with partners, families and providers, and are just as eager as the families for legislative process to match their needs.

“Across the nation,” says Ziedonis, “schools are having to take on some of these mental health issues. And when you enrich the neighborhoods with resources, the school can more effectively partner with the kids and family and get the help they need.”

While the children repeatedly complain about their experience at school, Metz argues that they, too, are waiting for resources to be able to help. The system gets a disproportionate amount of children in the state with complex needs, as there is a program to accept undocumented immigrants, and there are a lot of clinical services available in the area. The schools have developed referral mechanisms both with providers, agencies and emergency mental health services at UMass.

“It’s no secret that schools have been struggling with less support from the state,” says Metz, “and with an economy that is not providing tax revenues that had been projected and needed. They’re struggling to do what they want to do, but I can’t say enough positive things about the Worcester school system in terms of their concern.”

Mary Lambert, who has four children — two of them with special needs — argues that where the state falls short is within the legal court system. Kids that have challenges and land on probation or in court are often seen as troublemakers. But few, she and many of these kids say, peel the onion to realize that the trouble stems quite often from a severe imbalance that could be corrected.

“Those are the kids that are falling through the cracks,” says Lambert. “It’s clear-cut. Either you’re a criminal or need mental health treatment. If you land in juvenile court, you’re lost. Look at the prisons. I mean, look at juvenile detention. You look at probation and lock-up programs; there are a significant amount of kids who have mental health needs in that system.”

Metz adds, “That is where many of the children are ending up — in the courts and in DYS — who really don’t belong there.”

Simone is doing better because of attending things such as OTHERS (Other Teens Help Everybody Respect Self) meetings, and is searching for the right mix of medications and presently sees a therapist. Because the medication wasn’t working, he’s struggling in school.

“I want to either be an art teacher or an art therapist,” he says, “because, for me, it’s hard to talk about a lot of things. I think it’ll be easier to communicate through art with somebody rather than actually talking about issues.”

Once you understand your condition, or disease, it’s easier to move on and deal with it, says Jannelle Correa, who is the youth director at PAL.

“A lot of these kids were diagnosed later on,” she says. “They knew something wasn’t right, but no one listened to them.”

Story appeared May 29, 20018 in Worcester Magazine

Crystal Bowersox at Mechanics Hall
03.19.14 | No Comments
Category: A&E |Music Columns

Crystal Bowersox image 2 (hi-res)Nine-year-old Crystal Bowersox busted out of the fairgrounds in her Ohio hometown and headed to the backroads, trying to escape with a pig named Charlotte. She had fallen in love with Charlotte and didn’t realize while in the “swine program” of the local 4H Club that raising and caring for a pig meant eventually “sending it to market.” Even though she grew up on a farm, the reality of what some animals become was jarring to the young mind.

“I just didn’t realize he’d be made into bacon,” said Bowersox. “I fell in love with this pig. My mom had come looking for me in the swine barn, and we weren’t there. The pig followed me, and we were walking away from the barn. I was 9 and I don’t know where I thought we were going. My mom just drove alongside of me and said, ‘Crystal, you have to go back.’ I heard the auctioneer calling out numbers, and I was sobbing. It made me want to save animals.”

And if she didn’t learn to play the piano, Bowersox likely would have been a veterinarian.

“You can change the world in so many different ways,” said Bowersox.

Bowersox’s warm spirit, knockdown pitch-perfect singing voice and dreadlocks made the singer a favorite on ‘American Idol,’ and she ran away with the runner-up title on Season 10.

But Bowersox said she would have kept playing music with or without a reality show to hoist her along. It was her dream, and she never worked up a backup plan.

Unlike many who land on singing reality shows, Bowersox has always written her own music. Inspired by Jewel (the first 10 songs Bowersox ever learned to play were on the “Piece of You” record), she blended soul, blues and pop influences that also called upon a foundation of the genre paved by the likes of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones.

“I always thought growing up that people just wrote their own stuff,” she said. “I mean, I love a good cover song, but there is no better way to connect than with my own material.”

Growing up in an eclectic, sometimes tumultuous, blended family with five kids, she developed a resilience and grew wise beyond her years. While folksy pop inspired her songwriting style, she still loved bands such as Metallica, Megadeth and Pantera.

“My dad is a Harley guy, and he loves the blues, but our family vacations were Ozzfest,” said Ms. Bowersox, who had a band with her teen brothers called Oldinuph, in which she’d sing Metallica. “I have been surrounded by all kinds of music. I’m also a product of the ’90s pop thing, too. The kind of music I create is a folky, blues, soulful thing, but I could do some screaming.”

She describes her family as half-hillbilly midwestern middle class, and says she didn’t know what an avocado was until she was 17 years old. Her parents and stepparents knew what she liked to call “gray-haired rock stars” in the area; these musicians made a living at their craft, but didn’t tour. Bowersox’s parents would tote the 10-year-old to biker bars so she could play her tunes.

“The bar owners said I could stay if I played,” said Ms. Bowersox.

As an older teen, she moved to Chicago, supporting herself by busking and booking shows.

“Yeah, there was a time where my parents said, ‘Well, what are you going to do?'” she said. “I’d tell them I’m almost there, that I was doing it. I told my dad he’d eat his words.”

She takes pride in the fact that she was able to tell him to eat his words.

Bowersox, a single mom, tours the country much of the year with her band. She’s 28 and has two albums and an EP under her belt, and another EP and album on the launching pad. She’s also rehearsing for Broadway’s “Always … Patsy Cline.”

But she never envisioned getting there this way.

“I didn’t know it would come down to a reality show,” said Bowersox.

In fact, she had never even seen ‘American Idol’ when friends urged her to try out. She had heard of names such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, but had no concept of the show that had made them famous.

Her experience was a whirlwind, but mostly positive. Still, Bowersox said she wasn’t able to enjoy it as much because she worried about her 5-month-old son, who she had to leave behind during the filming.

“My perception has changed a lot in the last four or five years,” said Bowersox. “When I was first on the show, it was something I was doing out of desperation as a single mom living on my dad’s living room floor. But everything works out, and I’m 100 percent positive on everything. I have my own brand, and I do what I do for a living. People come to Crystal Bowersox shows; it’s not an ‘American Idol’ show.”

Near the end of 2013, Bowersox fans not only jumped on Tweets about her chopping her famous dreads, but her confirmation that she was bisexual. It had ceased to become a “big deal” to her, but she chose to make a grand announcement to help others who may be struggling. Bowersox complemented the announcement by releasing a tune called “Coming Out for Christmas,” which started out tongue-and-cheek, but evolved into a sentimental, emotional piece of reality.

“It is a big deal for kids who are not taught to love themselves for who they are,” she said. “And the more people who make this known are setting an example. People knew about me. I’ve had girlfriends and boyfriends. My mother struggled with it a lot in high school. She didn’t make me feel like it was OK, and that was rough. I had feelings of self-loathing, or that I wasn’t good enough. And that’s why I can relate. I’m 28 now, and still dealing with it.”

Ran in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, March 18, 2014

The Nixons Life Changed ‘In the Blink of an Eye’
09.02.13 | No Comments

nixonmitt
Then Senator Mitt Romney visited the Nixon family on Christmas shortly after the accident.

The Nixon family marks April 4 as the anniversary of an event that would forever changed their lives. On that evening 18 years ago, Sheryl and Mark Nixon’s sons, Rob and Reed, were severely injured in a car accident.

Reed, driving a minivan from a church function in Marlborough back to their home in Northborough, carried passengers that included his brothers Rob and Kent, his sister Natalie, and two friends. Quickly turning a corner with a van that had faulty rear brakes, that minivan collided with a telephone pole, then a curb, and flipped on its head into the wooded area.

Still, for a family you might not expect to think this way, their message is, “You can choose to be happy.” It’s their mantra, and if you spend any time with them, you quickly realize it isn’t a message that is casually thrown around; they live it.

Reed, now 37, is paralyzed from the neck down, needing 24-hour care. Rob, 35, has some movement in his upper body. He’s able to perform a lot of tasks, he’s a successful accountant and he’s married, living in Irvine, CA.

While the circumstances physically crippled two intelligent, thriving young boys, it did not cripple their will to live, and brought a family even closer than it had been. Now, this family inspires others to see the beauty in their own lives.

It was, of course, an evolution.

“I think it happened for Mark more early on,” said Sheryl of grasping the reality after the accident. “For me, it wasn’t for weeks before I think I actually started seeing what was going to happen.”

Sheryl said that the defining point for her, and perhaps for her sons, came during a meeting at the Roxbury VA hospital, where both underwent rehabilitation after their initial stay at UMass. Doctors and nurses held separate meetings to discuss Rob’s and Reed’s condition. When Mark and Sheryl heard Rob’s assessment, realizing he would be able to dress himself, feed himself, and even drive, they thought, “OK, we can deal with this.”

Reed’s assessment threw a blow that they could have never expected.

“When they held that second meeting with Reed, oh my God,” said Sheryl. “We just couldn’t imagine how life was going to be, because they said they didn’t anticipate him ever regaining movement in his body.”

Reed would need 24-hour care, for help with virtually everything, and would “always need someone within earshot.”

“Mark and I were both crying,” said Sheryl. “I felt beside myself. The head nurse said I could go into her private office, and i went in and cried and wailed for five minutes and I realized, this is only going to make me worse.

“I haven’t cried like that again, I don’t think, because it is what it is. And no matter how sorry we felt for ourselves or how sad we are for our sons, it doesn’t change the facts. We needed to unify as a family and pull together our faith and trust in God and do whatever it was that was necessary to pull it together and make it the best it could be for Reed and Rob.”

The rear quarter of the Nixon home is a spacious, bright addition defined by a large family space lined with windows to allow natural light to pour into the room. With high ceilings, soothing shades of painted walls, a large digital clock on the wall, overstuffed recliners and couches, and a large flat screen, off this room are two bedrooms and a bathroom.

All of it was equipped to satisfy the physical, and emotional, needs of Reed and Rob when they came home from the hospital. Reed and a personal assistant, Cindy, as well as Sheryl, spend a majority of their time in that area of the house.

Reed is engaging, upbeat, and speaks candidly about his situation, and the past, never shying away from tough questions or reality.

“It was a sad time,” said Reed, “but as I’ve looked back on that time, I really feel that the way that they look at spinal cord injuries …. they are always looking at the rehab phase and not as living life and enjoying life. I know they were trying to paint a picture of the future, but no matter what the situation, life can always be enjoyable. There are friends to have and love to share with people. Even though you’re not always happy with your situation, it’s not going to change and you can still enjoy and have a happy life.”

Doctors predicted that Reed, initially, would live three to five years. Then, they said it would be five to seven.

“Tomorrow, it will be 18 years,” said Sheryl, beaming at and clutching Reed.

“I still am hopeful and I hear of progression that has been made in the medical and electronics fields,” said Reed. “My health has improved. It may not be prevalent to someone in the medical field, but I lived more life and did more thnings than anyone expected or anticipated. You can never say one thing will be certain. New things happen and we learn new things and education changes and grows.”

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When Sheryl broke her ankle and leg slipping off a ladder in 2005, she ended up bedridden for six months. Not only did it open up a lot of mental space to re-examine the traumatic car accident that injured her sons severely years ago, it gave her time to sift through all of the journaling she had compiled during that time. She combed through the journals, as well as some songs (Sheryl is a professional singer and songwriter), and transcribed the cassettes Mark had recorded while driving to and from the hospitals.

“I’ve always kept a journal since I was young,” said Sheryl, “so it was already a habit that I had. Once the accident happened, I continued writing and had a lot of time sitting at the hospital with the boys.”

The result is a poignant recollection of the accident, and the subsequent acceptance and hope erupted from it. In the Blink of an Eye: The Reed and Rob Nixon Story painstakingly details the unfolding of the events that started with the accident, through the realization of her sons’ condition, through rehabilitation, to a profound acceptance—not only by her, but the sons who would never walk again.

Her song lyrics are peppered throughout the book to emphasize emotion, and provide a soulful transition between paragraphs. Sheryl also suffers from depression, as well as fibromyalgia, which she developed in 1989 after she was hit square in the face with a baseball. That, too, is briefly addressed in the book.

Deeply spiritual, she and the family often reference their faith as the anchor that helped keep them together, and heal. The outpouring of support, too, was remarkable, and included neighbors and friends donating airline miles, providing rides, holding fundraisers and a group of contractors who built the Nixons’ 1,100-foot addition. Sheryl said she was shocked at the reaction, particularly since the family had only lived in Northborough for a year and a half at that point.

“Because we had four kids in the schools around here, they were well known,” said Sheryl, “but we had been here for such a short time. When we went to move here, people said, ‘Oh, people in New England are so cold.’ Well, after only being here a year and a half, this town treated us like we were lifelong residents. Rob and Reed were on the cross country and track teams, and they had a lot of friends at school. This town was absolutely a miracle … this town and the surrounding towns.”

While she was working on transcribing and organizing these journals, never did Sheryl think it would materialize into a book. Originally, it was going to serve as a family history.

“No one was more shocked about writing a book than I was,” said Sheryl, who, sometimes self-deprecating, will remark, “I’ve always just been a homemaker and mother.” Reed, quick to counter his mom’s comments, will add, “Mom, that’s just not true. You’re an accomplished writer and musician. You’re very creative.”

The book, while it brings the reader through the tragedy, projects a strong message of hope and peace. Rob and Reed’s attitude, almost from the beginning, is what inspired Sheryl to publish the book for others, she said.

“Life goes on and you can choose to be happy,” said Sheryl. “People don’t realize that it’s a choice. Sometimes, they get stuck in those horrible feelings and are never able to pull out of it, so there is a negativity around it. Rob and Reed have shown from the very beginning that they chose to be happy, and wanted to be happy.

“At first, how can you look at the situation with Rob and Reed and think there were any blessings there? Well, they were alive, and their brains weren’t damaged. You have to step aside from the awfulness of the situation and think what is something I can be thankful for? The more you try to be thankful, the more your attitude is uplifted.”

It hasn’t always been easy, particularly when you’re “in the midst of it,” added Reed. When the information comes in fast and furious, life can be confusing and frustrating.

“When things calm down and you can focus, and realize this is going to be longer,” he said, “there are things you can do, and it won’t be the end all. There are lots of things you can do out there, whether you’re able-bodied or not.”

Sheryl Nixon will lead a discussion and sign copies of In the Blink of an Eye: The Reed and Rob Nixon Story on Saturday, April 13, at 10 a.m. at the Northborough Free Library. Reed will possibly join his mom for the event. Space is limited, and you can reserve your spot here.

Editor’s note: for excerpts of the Northborough Patch interview with Sheryl and Reed Nixon, click on the attached video. A full-length version of this interview will be also be soon be available on Patch.

This story originally ran in Northborough Patch, May 7, 2013

Bad for Business on Blake?
09.02.13 | No Comments
Category: News

The Downtown Improvement Project, an upgrade to the center/Main Street area of Northborough in collaboration with the state, began last year and its intent was to create more navigational ease for downtown drivers.

While for many, the new lanes and lights do provide that, some aren’t as thrilled with the project: namely those with businesses along Blake Street.

Tucked behind buildings on a narrow, short inlet that curves behind the former town hall (now Zem Han) and CVS, these businesses have struggled with visibility to passerby. Now, they say a combination of enforced sign laws and the inability to take a left onto Blake Street from West Main Street/Route 20, is hindering it even more.

“The downtown improvement project has really negatively impacted our business,” said Hakan Zirh, owner of Zem Han. “The road construction was creating huge traffic on Main Street and people were taking different roads to avoid the traffic and they wouldn’t come to our restaurant because of traffic. When the road on Main Street was completed, they put the sign that does not allow to make a left turn from Main Street to our parking lot on Blake Street and another sign that does not allow to go to Main Street from our parking lot. This created such a big inconvenience for our customers. This affected our business tremendously.”

Zirh argues that in comparing the numbers of diners in his restaurant to before the road construction to figures during and after construction, business was reduced “by four times.”

Business owners met with Town Administrator John Coderre, Town Planner Kathy Joubert, Building Inspector Fred Lombardo and Town Engineer Fred Litchfield on May 8, when Susan LaDue, owner of the Doggie Den, said “the town staff were generous with their time and comments but would not budge on the changes that we requested: a left turn onto Blake from route 20 east; and making Blake two-way. It seemed as though town staff felt that the downtown beautification was nearing its end and they were loathe to re-open anything or add anything new.”

“Follow-up work has been done by the town engineer regarding the Blake Street/West Main Street intersection, turning movements, and additional signage for the area,” said Joubert, who added that Litchfield was working on a memo to Coderre and business owners.

Joubert, addressing the long-running issue with the overuse of temporary signs in town, added, “There appear to be fewer of them, especially in the center of town area. It seems to go in waves throughout the year. Sometimes, there appear to be many that have been erected without a sign permit and then at times, they are down or gone. We receive far fewer complaints from residents then.”

According to LaDue, Zirh, at the May 8 meeting, also explained how the Blake Street flow was harming his business, and “the implication seemed to be that ‘if you want visibility on Main St. you should rent premises on Main Street.'”

“I repeatedly asked what the process was to request a change in traffic flow on a town street and no one had an answer for me,” said LaDue. “Coderre promised to get back to me on whom we can contact to change the flow on Blake Street.”

Blake Street businesses were told that they shouldn’t expect any obstruction or slowdown in traffic due to the improvements that have been ongoing, said LaDue. They were “dismayed,” she said, that “there have been several choke points set up so far this summer, making it difficult for cars to get through town.”

Tony Kwan, who owns the building that houses Zem Han, paid for a permanent sign that displays not only Zem Han, but the other businesses along Blake Street. Also, LaDue said that Joubert has “promised signs at the corners of Church and Main and Hudson and Main” that indicate where drivers should turn for Blake Street businesses.

“It’s not any different than it was before,” said Paul Delles, owner of Mama’s Pizza on Blake Street. “The town moved on a $4 million dollar project and they didn’t see what they could have done to help businesses out on Blake Street.”

Delles argues that while the no left turn is enforced for drivers wishing to turn onto Blake Street, it is not the case for the nearby CVS or Gulf Station.

“Where are the priorities, where are the rules?” said Delles. “It’s a joke. It’s a maze to get to Mama’s.”

A meeting to discuss temporary sign bylaws is scheduled with the Planning Board for Sept. 3. “Over the years, this particular section of the sign bylaw has presented challenges to business owners, residents and town boards,” says the announcement. “We would like to hear your thoughts and suggestions pertaining to the bylaw as we begin to consider changes to the zoning bylaw for the 2014 Annual Town Meeting to be held in April.”

This story originally ran on Northborough Patch, July, 2013