Meet Derrick Parker, ACCESS Life Member

An Interview with his Mother, Cynthia Powell

“Comfortable in his own skin. Not only believing in himself but also knowing his self-worth,” is how Cynthia Powell, mother to Derrick Parker, describes her son, one of the newest members of the ACCESS Life young adult program.
Derrick, a North Pulaski High School graduate, joined ACCESS Life in August and is already well-known among the staff for his kind manner and quiet determination.


Just a few short months, ago, though, Derrick was not as confident in his talents.


“When Derrick came to us, he had great social skills, but we soon realized he did have some social challenges we needed to address,” said Nathan Winham, ACCESS Life instructor. “He lacked confidence in his abilities and areas where he excelled.”


His mother agreed. After Derrick spent an afternoon with the Life members to try out the program, Cynthia said, “For the first time in a while, I saw a smile on Derrick’s face. He had so much to tell me.”


As a toddler, Derrick experienced developmental delays and a severe hearing loss, which manifested in communication problems. He had ear tube surgery to alleviate severe, chronic ear infections and was placed in an early childhood program to address his developmental needs. From Cynthia’s account, there were many setbacks in Derrick’s treatment – getting someone to listen to her concerns about her son’s problems, as a first-time young mother; learning Derrick had mild intellectual disabilities and would need extra care; and finding an educational setting where he would be encouraged. At one point, Derrick came home crying from school, having been told by a teacher he would never learn to read, and he would never know his name. Cynthia was forced to move her son to various schools, always in search of a productive, caring learning environment.


How Derrick came to be the happy graduate smiling from his senior year photo is the result of a very wide support network that starts with his mother, grandparents, teachers and caseworkers.


“It takes a village to raise a child,” Cynthia said, quick to note those who devoted time and talents to helping Derrick.


There were his teachers from Clinton Magnet Elementary School in Sherwood, who put together modified materials for Derrick to use at home when he encountered academic challenges after leaving for middle school. There was Derrick’s grandfather, who spent two years working with Derrick every weekend on his written expression and helping him maintain his self-esteem during challenging high school years. There was his caseworker with Arkansas Rehabilitation Services (ARS), who helped Derrick explore different vocational education programs. There was Cynthia’s mother, who made the time to attend school meetings regarding Derrick’s Individualized Education Plan and who gave her daughter the emotional strength to fight for her son’s rights to a fundamental education.


And then there was Derrick himself. The fourth oldest cousin, and, therefore, the fourth in line to graduate high school, Derrick was the first grandchild in his family to graduate high school.


“He wanted a difference for himself,” Cynthia said. “He wanted to graduate.”


As Derrick prepared for graduation, Cynthia researched various vocational programs. They decided Derrick would enroll in a residential rehabilitation program. There, he accomplished personal goals such as living away from home. His mother still had concerns about Derrick’s self-esteem, however; together, they sought an encouraging environment for him.


After hearing about the ACCESS Life program from his ARS case worker, Derrick and his mother decided to learn more about it. Cynthia was drawn to the curriculum, which, in addition to social, vocational and life skills training, includes maintenance of academic skills such as reading and written expression. Derrick enjoyed his trial visit, returning home and telling Cynthia, “Mom, I think that’s where I want to go.”


“Before coming to ACCESS, Derrick would stay in his room all the time and either watch YouTube videos on his phone or play games. After, he would start coming out. He just started getting brighter and brighter in just two or three weeks,” said Cynthia.


“Derrick’s such a polite individual, very caring about the other members,” said Nathan. “He has developed friendships and is hanging out with his friends after-hours. He hates to miss a day, even when he’s sick, because he feels like he’s somehow letting us down.”


Nathan described a recent challenge he gave the Life members. They were asked to go home and do something out of the ordinary for their families. Derrick returned to the group and shared that he woke up on a Saturday morning and cooked his “famous omelets” for his mother and made his sister some eggs, using the culinary skills he gained in ACCESS Life. Nathan noted that both Derrick and Cynthia embrace the program’s challenges, telling how Derrick initially started the group’s swimming activities with a sometimes debilitating amount of fear but now regularly swims four laps in an Olympic-sized pool. He has also received stellar feedback from four different on-campus job internships.


“It’s one thing for our members to learn things here, but it’s another thing to take it home and put those skills in action,” said Nathan. “Derrick is always giving 100 percent.”


Not only can you see the change in Derrick, but when you listen to his mother’s story, it becomes obvious this is a story about her, too. It’s hard not to be impressed when you see what problems Cynthia overcame in seeking people who would believe in her son’s abilities.


“Advocate,” Cynthia said, chuckling. “I used to not have the word for it, but now I know that what I have become is an advocate.”


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