In 1988, doctors delivered a brutal diagnosis to first-time mom Martha Baker.
Baker’s 9-month-old son, Peter, wasn’t able to hold a bottle, and Baker couldn’t figure out why.
When doctors uttered the words “cerebral palsy,” Baker said she wasn’t ready for it.
“She said he would never be normal, he would never go to normal school and he would never graduate,” Baker said in a Goodwill of South Florida conference room nearly 30 years later. “That really killed me, and I was very upset over it.”
Baker looks over at her son, Peter, as she speaks. Her 29-year-old son soaks dribbling saliva with a white towel. His expression remains blank as he stares at the wall.
“But he has come a long way,” she said in a soft voice.
Peter can’t talk, so we’ll never know what he was thinking. But his mother understands him in the way only mothers do.
“I understand everything he says,” she said. “When he wants something, he comes to me, and I understand him.”
Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder that causes abnormal brain development. For Peter, the illness left him unable to speak or control the right side of his body.
His challenges have often been the subject of ridicule and misunderstanding, but Peter’s employers at the Goodwill Work Activity Center, a division intended to promote independence and growth for people with disabilities, said his situation hasn’t kept him from doing well at work.
In August, Martha Baker sent Goodwill a letter from Peter’s doctor that said a speech-generating device would help. His employers are trying to get the machine, which costs about $5,000. His story is being told as part of this year’s Miami Herald Wish Book program, which shares the challenges of those in need during the holiday season.
“We can see him thrive, and we can see how this device would help him,” said Lourdes de la Mata-Little, Goodwill Industries of South Florida marketing and advertising vice president. “It’s not just the device, it’s the gift of speech that will liberate him.”
The device he needs includes a keyboard with pictures that translates into spoken words.
Baker said her health insurance won’t cover the cost of the machine and that Social Security payments aren’t enough. Peter’s mother is a 78-year-old retired nurse, and his father died three years ago.
Peter makes minimum wage at Goodwill.
In June 2015, Peter began working in the center’s fulfillment and assembly section. His assigned counselor, Wanda Martell, said he happily communicates with fellow co-workers.
“He likes to help everybody. So sometimes he stops working and doing his job to help others, which is good, but you know we got to work on that,” she said jokingly.
Despite his disability, socializing is one of Peter’s favorite pastimes.
His mother says Peter uses her cellphone to call relatives every day. He spends paycheck money on batteries and tapes for his radio. He plops himself in front of the TV to hear characters’ voices.
Baker said listening to people talk is a way of communicating for Peter. He likes to hear their voices.
Communication wasn’t always a one-way street, though.
Five years ago, Peter used a special keyboard that spoke words out loud for him, but it broke four years ago from overuse. Ever since, he has been dependent on communication through his mother.
Although Baker still ties Peter’s shoes and buttons his shirt every morning, she said she worries about a future without her and the device. She’s his last remaining microphone, and she said she doesn’t know what will happen to him if she dies and he doesn’t have help.
“He would be lost,” she said. “Because nobody would know what to do for him or say to him.”
How to help: Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.