Cerebral palsy patient in wheelchair finds a paying job, and happiness

January 08, 1995|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

Jana Pratt's wish has come true. She got a job.

But it took the 22-year-old redhead, who has cerebral palsy, 14 months to find employment after graduating in 1993 from John Archer School, Harford County's special education school.

"Every morning I would get up and have nothing to look forward to," Ms. Pratt recalls. "I would think, 'What's the point?' I was very emotional."

Now, with help from a job coach at United Cerebral Palsy in Baltimore and her own resilience, Ms. Pratt parks her wheelchair behind a table at the entrance of BJ's Wholesale Club in Abingdon three days a week and greets customers.

"It's nice," she says. "I've become close to the people behind the service desk. If there's a problem with a customer, they come and help me."

BJ's employees Julie Jenkins and Christina Accardi are usually only a walkie-talkie squawk away. They often stop by to check on Ms. Pratt and give her impromptu wheelchair rides through the store.

"She loves to go fast," Ms. Accardi says. "I just say, 'Do you have your seat belt on?' "

On a recent hectic Friday, Ms. Jenkins passes by Ms. Pratt's desk and tosses her a package of Oreo cookies. Ms. Pratt's eyes light up. "I love anything chocolate," she says, as she turns her attention back to the crowd.

In addition to welcoming patrons to the store, Ms. Pratt also encourages them to buy BJ's memberships, which entitle them to shop at the discount store and grocery.

"Since I'm in a wheelchair, they don't think I know what I'm doing," says Ms. Pratt, whose speech is slow but easily $l understandable. "I try to overlook it, but it's not easy."

"There was some initial rough going with customers being nasty," says Walt Lashno, the general manager at BJ's. "I told her not to take it personally."

Elizabeth Chestnut, Ms. Pratt's job coach from UCP, also feels Ms. Pratt's frustration.

"People think because someone walks funny -- whatever funny is -- or drools, their brain is handicapped, too," Ms. Chestnut says.

"In Jana's case, people question her because she's in a wheelchair. We concentrate on how the client is going to respond. We tell them, 'We can help you control yourself. We can't control other people.' "

Ms. Chestnut and Ms. Pratt worked together on Ms. Pratt's job search, making phone calls and filling out applications. "She wanted a job that deals with people," Ms. Chestnut says.

Success finally came in late October.

"She had the qualifications -- personality, and she's outgoing," says Mr. Lashno, adding that he had a personal interest in Ms. Pratt because he is the father of a John Archer graduate. "We felt she'd do a good job in front of the store."

Ms. Chestnut will continue to work with Ms. Pratt and make semimonthly visits to BJ's to see how she is doing. "I'm a morale supporter," Ms. Chestnut says.

"Without her help, it would have been very, very hard to make the transition from school to work," Ms. Pratt says.

"Our goal was to prepare her for work," says Judy Pratt, Ms. Pratt's mother. "We can never express our gratitude for the opportunity and kindness that have been shown to her."

Ms. Pratt lives with her parents in Forest Hill.

The home is teeming with other family members, including Ms. Pratt's twin sister, Julianne, 24-year-old brother Brad and 19-year-old Carol, a foster child who is mentally limited.

There's also Nestle, a boisterous, chocolate Labrador puppy who relishes attention.

"There's no room at the inn," laughs Judy Pratt, who is a nurse at John Archer.

Mrs. Pratt and her husband, Walt, have had their share of grief. They lost two children before Brad's birth -- one from sudden infant death syndrome and another from a genetic disease.

"We could shed tears or pick up the ball and run and help others," says Mrs. Pratt, who has taken other foster children under her wing in past years. "It has made us better people."

They didn't realize that Jana had cerebral palsy, a birth disorder, until she was a year old, Mrs. Pratt says.

The twins were born three months prematurely. Julianne weighed 4 1/2 pounds. Four-pound Jana was born second, which may account for her disability, Mrs. Pratt says.

Each family member has been affected by Jana's cerebral palsy. "It teaches you to be tolerant," says Julianne, who remembers a former Baltimore County neighborhood where children beat up her brother and their car was vandalized because Jana used a wheelchair.

Julianne is a first-year special education teacher at Fallston High School. "Jana is my inspiration," she says. "I never had a doubt about what I would do."

But for Jana, growing up with healthy siblings hasn't always been easy.

"To this day, it is difficult to see my brother and sister go out on dates with boyfriends and girlfriends. . . . They have everything at their fingertips. They drive," she says wistfully. "It's one thing I would like to do, but can't because of my background with seizures."

But Jana is rarely solemn for long. Her ready smile and engaging energy return quickly.

"I'm determined to be like everybody else," she says. "I couldn't be in any better place."

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