“Head up, Addi,” Brooke says as Addi’s head slumps backward like a ragdoll.
Brooke tickles her neck. Addi pulls her head erect, eyes wide, smiling at Brooke.
“Oh, Addi,” Brooke says.
At 3 years old, Brooke is eight months younger than her best friend, 4-year-old Addi. But it’s Brooke who takes the lead, holding Addi’s hand as they coast down a slide, guiding her onto the school bus or coaxing her to use her walker.
The two attend preschool at United Services for Children, a pediatric therapy and education center in Dardenne Prairie supported by United Way.
Addi communicates with Brooke through facial expressions, hugs and hand holding. Addi was diagnosed with epilepsy, but that does not explain her inability to walk or talk. She has cognitive delays and an undiagnosed seizure disorder that has doctors stumped. They hope genetic testing will eventually pinpoint the cause of her disabilities.
Through the Missouri First Steps program, Addi was already receiving therapy from United Services staff. Addi’s mom Jamie thought it would make sense to continue her treatment by enrolling her in United Services preschool. At the time, Addi was feeding through a gastronomy tube.
“Most schools would’ve put her in a baby classroom and kept her separated from kids her own age, afraid she’d get hurt,” Jamie said. “Other schools wouldn’t be able to keep up with her daily care and medicine administration.”
With the help of United Services, Addi is making strides physically and socially. She has learned to crawl on her own and walk with assistance. She is spoon-feeding herself. But it is her social progress that has touched the hearts of the adults around her.
“Before, she would sit in a corner and play by herself. She never really cared what anybody else was doing,” Jamie said. “Now she will crawl across the room to be with the other kids and play with them.”
Addi receives support from all of her classmates, but she has formed a special bond with Brooke, who does not have disabilities. The two girls act like sisters. Brooke calls her friend, “My Addi,” and advocates for her when she is tired or unhappy.
“You never know why kids are so drawn to each other,” Jamie said, “but from the very beginning Brooke attached to Addi.”
Tara Lavigne, Brooke’s mother and staff member at United Services, said her daughter talks about Addi all the time. Brooke shows Addi how to do things like play with toys. She makes sure Addi is safe, holding her hand and staying by her side.
Brooke also serves as a motivator in helping Addi learn to walk. Brooke will stand a few paces in front of Addi and encourage her to use her walker to come forward and meet her. Brooke will climb into a toy shopping cart to give it weight and stability so that Addi can push it. Sometimes a teacher will hold Addi’s right hand while Brooke holds Addi’s left, helping Addi walk down the hall without a cart or walker.
When Addi grows weary of therapy, Brooke steps in to inform the adults that her friend has had enough. “Addi’s tired,” she says.
When Addi is sad, Brooke is often the only person who can cheer her up.
“One morning Addi was upset and crying, and no one knew why,” Tara said. “Brooke got on the floor and started talking to her. Addi stopped crying and started smiling. Then she was fine.”
Because Addi does not have a definitive diagnosis, Jamie does not know what the future holds but hopes her daughter will continue to grow stronger and learn to talk.
“It doesn’t matter what she can and can’t do. She’s happy, and at the end of the day that’s all that matters,” said Jamie. “She has a friend, and sometimes those friends we make early on are forever.”
About United Services for Children
United Services for Children provides developmental learning and pediatric therapy services to children of all abilities. For nearly 40 years, United Services has provided early intervention programs for thousands of children, equipping them to succeed as they enter kindergarten. United Services for Children has been a United Way funded agency since 1979.