BY :: G.F. KORRECK
PHOTOGRAPHY :: KATY BATDORFF
Love is patient…
So reads Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. And so it is, in the converse as well with West Michigan’s Barrie family — Ian, Suzannah, Atlas, and Apollo.
The foursome are a tight knit group reinforced by their commitment to each other and to their life-affirming dedication to their youngest member, Apollo, an 11-year old clinically diagnosed as severely multiply impaired, or SXI, but who is more accurately described as a young man on an incredible life journey.
That Apollo is making this journey is a tribute to his family, and to Lincoln School where he has been a student for most of his life. Apollo and his parents were part of a group of hundreds who recently attended the annual ACT (Artists Creating Together) Day at Grand Rapids’ Lincoln School. Formerly known as VSA, or Very Special Arts Day, the program has been part of the community since 1987. It brings together nearly 1300 students from all the Kent Intermediate School District (KISD) and matches them with over 40 activities and 500 corporate and high school volunteers on the Lincoln campus.
For Apollo, the event was spot on. Mom Suzannah says “he’s in his element. He loves school. He loves being here.” Apollo confirms his mother’s assessment with a smile and laughter that transcend words.
At one time considered unlikely to walk, let alone participate in daily life, Apollo Barrie is all one would expect of any pre-teenage boy — tousled hair, jeans and sneakers, annoyed with haircuts and doctor’s visits. And while he cannot verbalize his feelings, he has no trouble demonstrating them.
Life for the Barries started out fairly typical. Ian and Suzannah have been together since 1988 and have enjoyed a strong relationship since. After marriage they welcomed their first child, a son, and gave him a name that reflected the couple’s fascination with Greek mythology: Atlas. When a second son was born 13 months later, the name bar had already been set. “We couldn’t have named him Jim, could we” Ian asks. And so, Apollo joined the family.
The Barries learned of Apollo’s condition early and made it their mission to give him as much of life as they could. It was not easy at first. Older brother Atlas, now 12, was still an infant and Apollo required nearly full-time attention.
Suzannah, a successful court reporter, retired to stay home with the boys. The family investigated a number of programs and facilities in the area but eventually chose Lincoln because, as Ian recalls, “this was the school that had the people he needed.”
One of these was Kristin Kramer who has been a part of Apollo’s life almost from the beginning and a person the Barries credit with Apollo’s continuing improvement.
It’s a success story that’s repeated often at this school that was founded over 50 years ago in a church basement by a group of parents and has grown to a multi-complex, several-acre facility that now serves close to 200 students with over 80 staffers.
Lincoln’s principal, Steve Kadau, has been involved in special education since his early days in college when he was a volunteer at a camp for special needs children. Some thirty-plus years later he is now head of an operation that he views as “a fun place to work; it’s like a big family.”
The work is steady and the performance standards, as they do for all educational programs, grow increasingly demanding. But Kadau welcomes the scrutiny: “There’s more attention being paid to accountability, achievement. it’s a great thing. You have to prove, to show student growth.”
The Lincoln student ages currently range from 6 to 26, with some students spending nearly all of their time at the school before moving on to other programs.
The curriculum is tailored to meet a range of achievement objectives, nearly all dealing with ways to engage students and move them closer to being able to care for themselves as much as possible.
In Apollo Barrie’s case, the journey began with the basics—getting Apollo to respond to outside stimuli. In time, Apollo did begin to connect with his environment. One of his favorite places at the school now is the multi-sensory room, a setting that might remind some of a late 1960s rock concert venue—flashing, colored lights, bubble lamps, an assortment of visual experiences designed to trigger a response.
The school also has a pool—another of Apollo’s favorite pastimes—where students work on strength and coordination. Apollo has gone from an infant doctors were suggesting would not be walking, to a boy who now walks quickly enough to make his own way, and who occasionally has to be tracked down.
Among Apollo’s other activities at the school are work and play with specially-designed toys and devices, an adaptive bike being one his more recent conquests. Suzannah adds that a number of the classroom affects and exercises are repeated at home to affirm Apollo’s sense of security.
As the boys have grown—Atlas is now in middle school and remains close to his younger brother—the Barries have exhaled…just a little. Suzannah, a Master Gardener and instructor of herbal science, has been able to spend more time promoting the BarrieBeau Herb Farm in Alto that she established in 1998. The Farm offers select spa products at area venues and on line (www.barriebeau.com), and Suzannah teaches classes in the use of herbs and plants in cooking and other applications. Ian continues his work as Creative Director for Cole’s Quility Foods, where he’s worked since 1995, and has received numerous design awards. And while Apollo’s needs limit the family’s ability to take long trips, the Barries manage to optimize their time together. Wolf Lake Lodge, where Apollo gets to swim, is a popular day destination.
As the Barries tour the ACT venue, Apollo is exposed to an endless variety of options. There are musical performances, interactive displays, painting and crafts, and a semi trailer adorned with the designs of student painters.
Apollo enjoys some dancing with Suzannah and some craft work. He also takes time to pose for a family photo, not without hamming it up a bit. “You’re a Barrie, aren’t you,” Suzannah teases as Apollo lights up for the photographer.
This was a good day for Apollo, and there are many. There are other days, the Barries agree, that are not so special; days when Apollo is unhappy and uncooperative, exhibiting a dark mood that is tough to break through.
But breaking through is they key to it all.
“Nearly every day is a surprise” Ian says.” Every day we discover something we didn’t know he could do.”
Although he’s come a long way, it is doubtful Apollo will ever be able to live independently. He is learning, however, to manage the daily tasks of living many people don’t think twice about.
It’s a deliberate process but the rewards, and the surprises, are say the Barries, worth it. It just takes patience.
After all, isn’t this what love is?