Written by:  Tiffany Verzal

Small gestures can make the biggest difference in people’s lives. We have experienced this over and over again. But last Friday night may have been the most glaring example for our family.

When Alexis was two-and-a-half we got hooked up with the Early Childhood Development Network, where we worked with people in both Nebraska Health and Human Services as well as Lincoln Public Schools. At that time, Alexis was in the Rehab Day Program at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital. She was receiving two physical therapy sessions, two occupational therapy sessions, one speech therapy session, and a pool therapy five days a week. We didn’t have time for the therapists that the ECDN would provide to us in our home.

We didn’t want to miss out on a great opportunity to work with the school system, but we didn’t know how to fit it in. We had a meeting, and Brandon and I expressed our concern with the lack of peer interaction that Alexis was getting. That concern set into motion some of the most monumental times in Alexis’ short life.

The idea was that Alexis would be assigned a teacher, Diane, who would come into our home to play with Alexis and make some assessments. After a few weeks, Diane decided that it was time to get Alexis into a classroom setting. She talked to a wonderful Early Childhood Special Education teacher named Steph who was willing to let Diane bring Alexis into her classroom once a week for 45 minutes.

I’ll never forget walking into the classroom for the first time. Most of the children had special needs, but they seemed so much bigger and more aware than Alexis did. They seemed to move so fast. I sat in the back with Brandon watching Diane try to help Alexis move and play.

It wasn’t easy.

It wasn’t easy to watch, and it definitely wasn’t easy for Diane to do all of that work. I just felt sick to my stomach and I really didn’t want to ever take Alexis back. But we did, every week until the end of the school year.

Steph and Diane asked if Alexis could be a part of “The Big Show” (an end of the year class concert). There was nothing like watching Alexis on stage with her friends that first year. It was so wonderful that she was there, but so sad in other ways. She didn’t really sing. Her right hand was up in the air a lot. She kind of “zoned out.” And Diane had to hold Alexis up the entire time. It was so exhausting to watch, that we didn’t even stay for the ice-cream party after the event.

It is those moments, when we would step out of our comfort zone ~ that her brain injury would just smack us in the face.

Fast forward two years to last Friday night. She walked on stage without her walker and just a little help from a para. She held on to a rail, supporting her own weight. She did actions, and sang almost every word. She sang her favorite parts louder than any of the other kids on the stage.

If you would have asked me to predict that happening two years ago, I couldn’t have done it. I would have been wrong on many accounts.

But it wasn’t the best part…

I helped her off of the stage and she sat on my lap for a few seconds. Then she asked to get down and she shuffled her way down the line of grandparents being showered with hugs and kisses. I assumed that she was with one of them, and then I glanced over and she wasn’t with them.

She was sitting on the floor with her teacher, Steph’s daughter and some of her friends; just hanging out like she was one of the girls, eating ice cream with them. 

Things are not going to come as quickly and easily for her as they will for others. I know that the future will hold more feelings of sadness and frustrations about her injury. But those normal moments are so rewarding.

If Diane hadn’t gone out of her way to help Alexis gain more peer interaction three years ago, none of this progress would have ever occurred. In fact, Diane went above and beyond the call of duty of her job by offering to hold her up on stage during that first Friday night concert in year one.

Diane’s gesture transitioned to Alexis’ teacher Steph, who allowed Alexis to stay in her classroom three years in a row. We’ve watched Alexis go from being overwhelmed in a classroom setting, to being a part of the group. The classroom experience has fostered her independence in a way that nothing else could have. Her teachers have done a beautiful balancing act of keeping her safe- and letting her go, better than I ever could have. As a result, Alexis will start school in a normal kindergarten class with her peers this Fall.

Small gestures can turn into major things in a person’s life. I know that we will constantly look back at Diane and Steph’s efforts throughout Alexis’ school life and know that she wouldn’t be where she is without them. So here’s to the teachers, paras, and therapists (you know who you are) that go above and beyond for these little ones that need the extra love and attention.

A simple ‘thank you’ will never be enough.

Click here to watch Alexis’ first big show!

Alexis then…

Alexis now!

Tiffany Verzal

Tiffany Verzal was raised in rural Nebraska, and now lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with her husband Brandon and daughter Alexis (9) and Abby (2). In 2008, Alexis (then 14-months-old) was the victim of shaken baby syndrome at the hands of her daycare provider in Texas. Alexis suffered severe brain damage and has spent over 2000 hours in rehabilitation since her injury. Tiffany continues to raise awareness for traumatic brain injury, shaken baby syndrome and child abuse. Brandon and Tiffany serve as members on Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital’s Board of Trustees. Brandon is currently the Chairman of the Nebraska Child Abuse Prevention Fund Board.