Randall said “good morning” to the staff at his residence in Tennessee, greeting Aerry Austin one day when Austin showed up for work. Those two unremarkable words were just about the most remarkable thing Austin had ever heard. In 52 years, living with severe intellectual disability and a diagnosis of bi-polar and impulse control disorder, Randall had spoken for the first time in his life.
“Our eyes got big, staring at him, and then people started crying,’’ Austin said. “It was an eye-opener, and a tear-jerker. I felt such a warmth in my heart. I was just ecstatic. It felt like a big hug.”
In November Resources for Human Development presented its Barbara Foust Award and Tom Scheuren Award to Randall and Aerry – the first time RHD has made this kind of dual presentation. Aerry’s efforts in working with Randall, his determination to help Randall learn to speak, is the story of how much difference one person can make in the life of another. Randall and Aerry appeared at RHD’s Values Day in Philadelphia – it was Randall’s first airplane trip – and the telling of that story made the assembled crowd stand and applaud. Randall applauded back. With a vocabulary now up to 20 words, he stepped to the microphone and said, plain as day:
“Thank you very much.”
In the five years Randall has been a client at RHD Nashville he’d become known as a kind and gentle spirit with often challenging behavior, in most cases simply because he was so frustrated by his inability to communicate, to respond when people spoke to him. At times Randall would isolate himself or engage in self-injurious behavior. For those who cared for Randall, this cycle was painful to watch.
Aerry had been working part-time with RHD since 2008, when RHD Nashville director Jordan Allen rewarded his initiative with a new assignment as supervisor in a local home, working in direct service capacity with Randall, among others. Allen said it quickly became apparent that Randall felt comfortable with Aerry, and reported immediate improvement. He was participating in activities at the local YMCA and actively took on some in household chores, including setting the table for the other residents.
“It was very challenging,’’ Aerry said. “I like challenges, because I like to see progress. But there were times I wondered what I was getting into. Some days I’d need a couple deep breaths.”
He took a special interest in Randall, simply because, Aerry said, “I really felt like he wanted to talk.”
“He’d kind of say something to himself, and I thought he was really close to a word,’’ Aerry said. “I felt a natural attachment to him. I just told him: Don’t be afraid to say anything to me. I may not understand him. But I’d listen. He wanted to express himself. He wanted to say something. I just gave him an ear. I owed him that respect.”
Aerry started with object recognition, helping Randall with verbal exercises and slowly and painstakingly helping him to form the words that went with a certain task or item. Randall would make gestures, then sounds. Every once in a while, Aerry said, “I would swear I heard a word.”
And then, one morning, Randall spoke.
“I remember Chinita Jones, who’d been the independent support coordinator for Randall, was at the house, and she’d been working with Randall for 12 years,’’ Aerry said. “She was leaving and she said: Bye, Randall. And Randall said, ‘Goodbye.’ Chinita whirled around and looked at me and said: Did Randall say something?’’
Jones stepped back and said, “Randall?”
Randall waved and said, “Goodbye!”
Jones shrieked: “He just spoke!”
“I just said: Yeah, we’ve been working on that,’’ Aerry said, grinning.
Aerry is quick to credit the entire staff in Nashville, where works with Randall and every client at RHD with the same attention and care. But it’s plain that Randall has a special attachment to Aerry.
Today Randall is more confident and happier. He chatters at people, and loves to shake hands. As he sits in his house with Aerry on a cold January day in Nashville, listening to Aerry re-tell this story, Randall sits quietly. But when they pose for a picture, and someone suggests they shake hands, Randall lights up when Aerry grasps him. That human contact, simply holding Aerry’s hand, makes Randall giggle and smile and he starts talking.
Some of it is easy to understand, some of it is much harder. But Aerry listens.
“That’s my reward, the progress you see in the people we serve,’’ Aerry said. “When you see them smile, when they tell you how they’re doing, and they’re doing good, that’s my reward. That’s where my riches come from.”