By Michaela Gibson Morris | NEMS Daily Journal
For Regional Rehabilitation Center, the primary measure of success isn’t the 50 years it has been in existence.
It’s seeing 16-month Hamilton Housley of Tupelo, who has Down syndrome, conquer the skills he will need to crawl.
“Just getting up on his hands and knees is a big deal to us,” said mom Judith Housley.
It’s hearing Spencer Kirpatrick, who also has Down syndrome, speak clearly enough for his family, friends and teachers to understand him.
“I don’t know what Spencer would have done,” said dad Kevan Kirpatrick, without 14 years of therapeutic services at the center.
It’s living a full active life despite muscular distonia for Bernie McCoy Conrad of Algoma, who cut ribbon when Regional Rehab opened its center in 1962 and again when it reopened after renovations in 2010.
“The rehab center has been a miracle for me all of my life,” said Conrad, who has received services at the center for 50 years.
Many of the triumphs are small things most people take for granted.
“We know how big they are for that particular family,” said Kay Mathews, the center’s executive director and a speech therapist.
Board president Alan Banks calculated that the center provides services worth $1.5 million annually to about 2,000 clients from 22 counties each year. More than 80 percent of the center’s clients are children with disabilities and developmental delays.
“We provide professional therapeutic services free of charge,” Banks said. Neither clients nor their insurance companies are charged. The center is open to anyone who has a physician’s order for physical, occupational or speech therapy, audiology services or early intervention services. “That’s our greatest asset.”
The center has a $1 million annual budget. Funds come from allocations from city and county governments, United Way, grants, fundraising events and private donations.
The center is unique in the country in its ability to provide the services without charging patients or insurance companies.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” said Dr. Ed Hill, director of the NMMC Family Medicine Residency Center, who serves on the Mississippi State Board of Health. “The value is unquestioned. I’ve never heard anyone who was not overwhelmed by the dedication of the staff.”
Regional Rehabilitation Center officially incorporated in 1961, and the current center opened its doors in 1962. But the story of Regional Rehab begins with cerebral palsy.
In 1955, Nita Butler was compelled to push for something more when her family was told told that Tupelo Schools could do nothing past the fifth grade for her brother Milton. “That wasn’t good enough for her,” said Kari Robison, a physical therapy assistant and Butler’s granddaughter.
Butler contacted the United Cerebral Palsy office in Jackson and with a community wide effort, established a Cerebral Palsy Center in Tupelo. She and her husband, Robert Butler, are considered the co-founders of Regional Rehab.
John “Red” Rasberry , then serving as Lee County chancery clerk, became involved early in the process, in part, because like Nita Butler, he had a brother with cerebral palsy.
“He took such joy in being able to help families,” said his son John Rasberry.
The work began with a speech therapy classroom in what is now the Link Centre. Next the fledging center moved to the Nurses Home behind NMMC, where the hospital’s nurses lived, and set up a handicapped children’s clinic.
“We were all over town,” Mathews said.
Within a few years, the organizers realized that it just wasn’t people with cerebral palsy who needed help with therapeutic services. They decided to create an organization that could offer services to all ages and all disabilities.
“People don’t realize what it took,” said Rasberry’s daughter Emily Barber, but neither Butler nor Rasberry were concerned about credit. “All of them banded together.”
In August 1961, Regional Rehabilitation Center was incorporated with Rasberry as its president. With a 5-acre donation from Dr. Robert Pegram and $342,000, the current center was built and opened in 1962.
Regional Rehab hired the first physical therapist in North Mississippi, but occupational therapy proved a little more difficult. In the end, the center recruited a home economics major and sent her to school to become the center’s occupational therapist. An audiologist joined the center’s six speech therapists a few years after the center opened in 1962.
“The staff was so loyal from the beginning,” even though the center couldn’t pay them competitive wages for their professional expertise, Barber said.
After he retired as chancery clerk, Rasberry became the center’s full-time executive director, serving in that role until 1995.
Nita Butler served as the organization’s secretary until her death in 2010; her husband passed away in 2005. Her homemade candy is still a staple at the center’s Derby Day party.
“She never patted herself on the back,” Robison said. “She was always thinking ‘What can we do next.’”
Through the years, Regional Rehab has served as an incubator for a number of community services. The McDougal Center serves as a school for severely disabled children. Region III Mental Health Services, AbilityWorks, REACH Center for the Blind and sheltered workshop all got their start through Regional Rehab and now stand on their own. The Autism Center of Tupelo currently has office and therapy space at Regional Rehab.
“We keep evolving as needs develop,” Mathews said.
Regional Rehab still occupies that same 1962 building. A $2.3 million renovation project updated the building’s infrastructure, repaired walls, expanded some office space and rebuilt the front entrance. However the layout of the therapy spaces remained mostly unchanged because it worked so well, Mathews said.
“We’ve had a therapy pool from day one,” in this building, Mathews said. “How did they know what size audiology booth we’d need? … their foresight was amazing.”
David Helms of the Pontotoc Progress contributed to this story.