“I am a survivor”, Caitlynn Simpson says proudly with a grin.
Born at 24 weeks with a Grade IV Brain Bleed, she was not expected to live past birth. The doctors then changed their claims and said she would not live past 2 years of age. Then, it was 8 years. Now, she is about to graduate from the ACCESS Academy and turns 18 this month.
Daughter of June and David Simpson, Caitlynn is the youngest of their three children. They have one biological daughter, Jami, and two adopted daughters, Marci and Caitlynn. “We had one daughter and did not go into foster care looking to adopt”, says David.
While filling out the paperwork to become foster parents, they were asked what type of disabilities with which they felt comfortable. They answered, “glasses” because that is all they knew. Years later they are telling their story, each holding a foster child, one with a trach and hearing device the other wearing glasses. They have had 125 kids come through their home now, all with various special needs and disabilities. Out of those 125, they adopted only two, which June says,“God just picked those two for us.”
When Caitlynn came into their lives, they had been fostering for over 10 years and had adopted Marci, which was one of the very first Arkansas transracial adoptions and was when they started learning how to care for children with disabilities. Tammy Simmons, Executive Director of ACCESS and Co-Founder, first met June and David Simpson 26 years ago when she started providing speech language therapy in her home to their daughter, Marci.
“Tammy was a lot younger when we first met” reminisced June as she winked and giggled. This friendship has grown through the years as Tammy and the ACCESS team has worked to meet their family’s needs. “We all grew up together”, stated Tammy. And June quickly responded, “This is an extended family for us, and we have always felt nurtured by them”.
When Caitllynn was 4 months old, she weighed only 4 pounds. She was on oxygen and cried continuously. The first two years of her life she was constantly uncomfortable. They “almost lost her” when she was a year old due to a bowel obstruction. A large portion of her intestines had to be removed and the recovery was long. The only time Caitlynn would not cry was when she was placed in Marci’s arms in a rocking chair. “Neurologically when kids are that young, they have difficulty coping,” said Tammy. “She really is a miracle.”
At the beginning, the Simpsons were only comfortable with doing therapy at their home, due to Caitlynn’s fragile health and trouble with transitions. However, in time they enrolled Caitlynn in preschool at ACCESS (at the time known as Accessibilities). The group consisted of therapy, one preschool classroom and two academy classrooms, but it grew as did Caitlynn.
In time, Caitlynn would go through preschool at ACCESS and then continue on to ACCESS Academy. In the academy, continued challenges were faced and there were series of meltdowns that Caitlynn experienced while in the classroom. Her teacher recommended that she be evaluated. Caitlynn tested off the charts for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and medication was prescribed to help her cope. “Once she started on the medication she was acing her work,” June said. “She went from not being able to add, subtract to pre-algebra. The change was amazing! I am not for advocating medication for children, but when it works, it works.”
Caitlynn has overcome great diversity and has succeeded in the classroom and beyond. She is respected by her peers and enjoys participating in extracurricular activities including being a part of the Gator track team and competing in the Special Olympics. Her parents and ACCESS instructors helped her study for her driver’s license, which she obtained, and now she is currently studying for the GED.
When asked what she enjoys most about ACCESS, Caitlynn replied, “All of the people that work here….I think it’s really special how everyone treats me. This is the only place that my parents feel I could be accepted. We know that I am not the only person facing challenges.”
After Caitlynn graduates from ACCESS Academy, it is the Simpson’s hope and goal for her to be an intern in Project SEARCH®. This program provides real-life work experience combined with training in employability and independent living skills to help young adults with disabilities to help make successful transitions to the workplace. The goal for each participant is competitive employment.
June and David both agree that it is scary to think about the future. For 15 years, they were never worried about Caitlynn because they knew she was safe and in good hands at ACCESS. However, “with age comes change,” claims June. Since she was young, transitions were hard for Caitlynn, but the Simpsons feel like Project SEARCH will help tremendously with her transition into being an adult. The transition into adulthood is one of great significance. This, coupled with the responsibility of obtaining a quality, meaningful work experience can be overwhelming. The ACCESS staff will be there to provide assistance when needed for Caitlynn and her family.
The Simpsons both agreed that they could not have done it without the support of ACCESS. “ACCESS was instrumental not only in the development of Caitlynn, but for us as her caregivers” said June. “The family support that ACCESS provided was instrumental in the success of Caitlynn and our family.” They would have never predicted this outcome for Caitlynn and know that great things are going to come for her.
“The thing about ACCESS is they let you learn as you go. ACCESS took care of us, educated us, and is very family friendly,” said June. “We feel blessed that we were lucky enough to be able to give both Marci and Caitlynn what we consider the best.”
When asked about their hopes for the future of ACCESS, without hesitation, June replied, “The Village,” which has been a vision for more than ten years. “As smart and capable as Caitlynn is, she would need to live in a protected environment,” said June. The vision of the ACCESS Village is an integrated community, where people of all ages, backgrounds and ability levels can live, work and play.
In conclusion, we asked Caitlynn what ACCESS has done for her through the years, she giggled, gave a huge smile and said, “a lot.” “I have gone here all my life. I know I can trust my friends here. I am telling my story because I want everyone to know that I am a survivor because of ACCESS.”
“I agree that Caitlynn is a survivor, but she is much more than that,” said Tammy. “She has beaten all odds and has surpassed every obstacle, all with the determination to succeed. She has been victorious in a race that no one expected her to be able to run. We know she has many more victories ahead of her and we plan to be there every step of the way.”