Courier News, August 2015: After serving as a board member to Friendship Community Care, Inc. for nine years, with two of those years serving as Chairman for Board, I’ve often wanted to share my great appreciation for everything that this nonprofit organization has meant to my family, and to thousands of others across our state.

I find mere words of appreciation hollow, without first sharing our story:

Surreal. Its the only word I can come up with that describes the feeling my wife, Carol, and I felt exactly twenty-four years ago today. It would be a day that changed our lives forever.

That was the day our beloved daughter, Chelsea, was born with Down Syndrome, a condition that affects both the mental and physical development of a person. When the head nurse handed her to me in the operating room, I became the first family member to hold her, and I became the first to know something just wasn’t right. The ultrasounds had shown everything was normal, and even upon my voicing concerns that something seemed wrong, the head nurse replied that “she was perfect”. But I noted our doctor left Carol’s side to take a glance, and said nothing upon returning to complete the operation.

The phone call was not unexpected. Chelsea had been born at 10:00AM and it was just after noon. “Mr. Denton, Dr. Henry would like to speak to you in person.” In that meeting he told me that most likely my suspicion of Chelsea having Down Syndrome was correct. Genetic testing would have to be done to confirm it, but he felt certain it was a correct diagnosis. I will forever be grateful for Dr. Reid Henry’s kindness and graciousness that day at Doctor’s Hospital in Little Rock. He seemed distraught and had cleared his schedule for the entire afternoon, just to be there for us. In a way, he was the first of many who would come alongside us in the coming years, including two of the finest doctors in the Arkansas River Valley, Dr. Joe Cloud and Dr. Rick Harrison.

As I made my rounds to inform first my wife, then other family members that Chelsea had Down Syndrome, I was startled by my mother’s reaction. Upon telling her, she cringed and said “aw, bless her heart”, then immediately proclaimed exuberantly in a joyful tone, “we accept her, we love her, and tell me all about her!” I of course knew none of the answers to my mother’s questions, such as how much Chelsea weighed, or how long she was, but I did realize that I too, would have to shake out of my stupor and be strong for my family. Upon fulfilling my responsibilities to tell others the news, while pretending to be strong, I slipped away from Carol’s side, leaving her with her parents. Down the hall was a small janitor’s closet. After looking both directions to assure no one saw me go in, I closed the door to a tiny dark room with a small floor basin. As I knelt in the dark in that basin that day, I cried like never before, nor since. I pleaded with God. I hurt for my wife. I hurt for my newborn baby. I was confused that while there was a new life I must care for, there was also a death of normalcy. At one point I imagined someone hearing me, and calling security, and used the only available means for muffling sound I could find, a dry mop. I reluctantly share this with you to illustrate, that like others who have encountered “loss”, the strength we may exude presently, may have not been there in the beginning. There is a process to arrive in a good place, and our faith in Christ, time and others were our great allies of that process. To my relief, I stepped out of that closet into an empty hallway. No one had discovered me, and no one even knew, until sharing it with you today. Perhaps it is fitting that I could never find the light switch. I saw it as I opened the door to exit, but now I realize that exiting that darkened closet into a brilliantly sunlit hallway, represented the joy that was to come. I entered that closet hopeless. I exited with a determination to live life to the fullest and, if you’ll excuse my bit of colloquial lingo here, to “kick adversity in the butt”.

And so we have! Carol and I began our journey rather quickly. Right out of the blocks when Chelsea was only five weeks old, we made a trip to the University of Alabama, where we stayed in the home of a nationally prominent researcher in the field. Her first question was “what have you done since Chelsea’s birth?” Our reply was “nothing.” “Then you have lost a precious three weeks” replied Dr. Holder-Brown. While the condition of Down Syndrome is incurable, as it is in every cell of the body, we can alleviate some of the symptoms through massive intervention and constant stimulation. 

The most published individual on the subject of Down Syndrome in the world, Professor Pat Olewein, of the University of Washington, came to Russellville and spent three days in our home. These are but two of many contacts around the world we were in touch with, from France to Great Britain to Russia, only to conclude that right here in our own River Valley was a world-class organization that had everything we needed. Carol took Chelsea for the first time to Friendship Community Care. She was met by Jo Anderson, an administrator who Carol said “enveloped me with kindness”. She gave Carol the courage to begin the lifelong trek of intervention for Chelsea. She introduced Carol to Jennifer Metz, who would become Chelsea’s outstanding early intervention specialist for the next three years. What could be better than an expert who herself had a son with Down Syndrome? This organization founded in 1972 by one of Arkansas’ most successful visionaries, Cindy Mahan, is undoubtedly one of the greatest treasures ever to come out of the Arkansas River Valley. The countless hours spent by an excellent staff, too numerous to name in this article, are a part of my family’s heritage now.

We will forever be grateful for all they have done. And about the hopelessness I felt in that hospital janitor’s closet twenty-four years ago today: even if possible, we would not trade Chelsea for a Miss America, or an Olympic athlete, or a Rhodes Scholar, or a trillion dollars. It would be a bad trade. The joy, the love, the experiences, the friendships, the lessons she has taught us, could not possibly be duplicated. We are so blessed that Chelsea is our daughter. We are so blessed to have had a Friendship in our Community that Cares.

Written by: Chris Denton

Chris Denton is a graduate of ATU, a former teacher and coach in the Russellville School District, and was the 1985 State Coach of the Year in boys tennis. Denton served the Russellville community for eight years before resigning, to pursue business. He and his wife, Carol, currently reside in Asheville, North Carolina.