By Colin Foster
TROY — The last 10 years has been a long and difficult journey for the Meek family.
Adam and Kristy Meek, whose 10-year-old daughter Jacey has autism, have encountered much more than the typical parents of a adolescent child, but after a decade, things are finally starting to look up for their daughter — in part to the assistance from aides Heather Riggin and Brandy Joins.
“Since this team has come together, Jacey has just made leaps — she’s a totally different child,” Kristy said. “The team is perfect. I mean, the whole school plays a role in impacting her life, all the way from the cafeteria to the principal, but these two women here are changing her life on a daily basis.
“Of course, me and her dad and her sister and her brother are there, as well — but they’re with her five days a week.”
Jacey was diagnosed with autism when she was just two years old, while the family was stationed in Guam, as her dad, Adam, was in the Air Force. Since there were no places to seek help or treatment on the island, the Air Force got the family off the island back to the United States within five weeks.
The family went to Jacksonville, Arizona, and found a school called Pathfinder Academy, a place designed for children with autism or children with other mental disabilities, according to Kristy. Jacey attended therapy sessions five days a week for an entire summer.
Adam, originally from Piqua, got out of the military soon after and the family moved to Miami County. Jacey started kindergarten at Cookson, where she met Riggin.
Kristy said Heather was basically “thrown into a circus” the first year on the job. Heather said Jacey would run away from her all the time, all morning long.
“It was constant,” recalled Heather, a 1994 Miami East graduate whose been with Troy City Schools for 15 years.
“There was so much stimulation in a public place, Jacey just wasn’t at the point yet where she could handle all that stimulation. She would hide under the desks, she would do this ticking thing,” Kristy said.
Kristy said she would run into walls when she was very young, because of a sensory disorder, and grind her teeth. Jacey couldn’t feel anything from the neck down, and Kristy said they could never tell what sort of feeling their daughter was having.
“We could never tell if she was sick or hungry, we just didn’t have that communication,” she said. “She did learn some sign language before kindergarten, but it was so frustrating before that. You know she knows what she wants, but she can’t get the words out, and then it leads into a meltdown.”
“My first year-and-a-half with her, I don’t think we ever sat at a desk — we were always under it,” Heather said. “We’d make a tent in a corner with a sheet, I’d sit in there and be dying because it was so hot in the there. That was where she loved to be. She loved to be under something or in something.”
Joins’ road to becoming an aide began when her son was in first grade and in Jacey’s class. Joins was volunteering in the class, grading papers and helping out in other areas. The staff at Cookson found Joins to be a helpful resource for Jacey, and suggested she be a substitute aid.
“When Jacey got to second grade, the position opened and I had gotten a few phone calls from some teachers around here, saying I work really well with her, she knows you, you know her, why don’t you go ahead and apply, so I did,” said Brandy, a 1995 Troy High School grad.
There was another motivating factor in Joins decision to become an aide — her daughter Taylor, who is currently a senior in school. Taylor was diagnosed with a learning disability/language delay when she was five years old.
“Her being in my life makes me appreciate all the things that I can do, because it takes her five times longer to figure out what she needs to accomplish,” Brandy said. “But she never gives up and has goals that outshine what mine ever did. She has been a huge motivating piece in my life.”
For the last few years, Riggin has spent mornings with Jacey and Joins has been there in the afternoon. The pair of aides have also spent part of their summers with Jacey.
“I’ve spoken to professionals, people with a P.H.D., you name it … they don’t do what these women do — not even close,” Kristy said.
At times, Kristy’s eyes watered when talking about everything Jacey has been through. Her eyes, however, couldn’t have shined any brighter when talking about Joins and Riggin.
Indeed, it’s been a long road for the Jacey and Meek family — but that road got a lot less bumpier when Jacey met what Kristy called her “second mommy’s.”
“It was like she went from being someone who couldn’t hear you, can’t see you, can’t feel you to someone whose doing homework, she’s reading, she’s talking, she’s making communication and connecting with people. This is huge,” Kristy said.
“To see her now in a class, making friends, doing homework — she’s amazing. She’s an amazing kid,” Heather said.
Colin Foster may be reached at 937-440-5208 or followed on Twitter @colinfosterbg