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Rural Missouri Magazine
A place for kids
Thanks to singer Kenny Rogers, children in southeast Missouri receive help

by Bob McEowen

Daniel was fearless. If he could he would have jumped off the roof. He bit and hit his older brothers. He would launch into temper tantrums that lasted for hours. At 18 months he had never bonded with his mother. He wouldn’t even lift his arms for a hug.

Brayden Bratton, a 3-year-old boy receiving therapy for delayed development, reaches out to physical therapist Kathleen Cannon from the steps of a brightly colored ladder. The act of climbing up the ladder and placing toy cars on the top rung helps the boy develop his balance and coordination.

Desperate for help, Daniel’s mother called the Kenny Rogers Children’s Center in Sikeston. The facility, named in honor of legendary country music singer, provides physical, occupational and speech therapy for children in southeast Missouri.

“She was at the end of her rope and she didn’t know where else to turn,” says Michelle Fayette, executive director of the non-profit therapy center. “She had already gone to her doctor and said ‘This is not normal behavior.’ Her doctor told her, ‘This is your child’s personality and you’re just going to have to get used to it.’”

The center’s staff agreed the child’s behavior was abnormal and told the woman to return to her doctor for a prescription instructing the center to evaluate and treat the child.

Daniel appeared to have sensory integration issues. His central nervous system was unable to process all the stimulus bombarding him. Untreated his erratic behavior would continue.

Instead, Daniel received several months of extensive therapy at the center. Some of Daniel’s treatment might seem obvious. For instance, he was strapped into a harness that allowed him to channel pent-up energy without risk of hurting himself. Other treatment might seem surprising. One technique involved brushing the child head to toe to calm and organize the nervous system.

Through therapy Daniel calmed down and his behavior improved dramatically. Although speech therapy was originally recommended it proved unnecessary. Once Daniel’s sensory issues were addressed his words started flowing normally. He even reached out for his once desperate mom.

“That is one mother we probably saved her sanity,” Fayette says. “This child has made dramatic progress.”

Daniel’s story is remarkable not only for the child’s miraculous turnaround but also because the boy’s disorder is not what most people expect the center to treat. As recently as 2000 the center was called the Kenny Rogers Cerebral Palsy Center.

“I think over time people just assumed we only treat kids with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy or spina bifida,” says Fayette, who became director of the center two years ago. “But we treat a lot of kids with developmental delay, injuries due to the birthing process.

Occupational therapist Molly Nirider watches as 4-year-old Brayden Green cuts paper with scissors. Brayden experienced a stroke while still in his mother's womb. The incident caused some paralysis to his left side. Through therapy he is increasing the use of his left arm and leg. Occupational therapists like Nirider help people develop the skills needed to perform their "occupation." In a child's case that includes play, dressing themselves and listening to teachers.

“We treat children with Down’s syndrome, shaken baby syndrome, autism, muscular dystrophy, seizure disorder, sensory, acute sports injuries, vision therapy. I would guess that the diagnoses we treat are into the hundreds.”

Incredibly, no parent ever receives a bill from the Kenny Rogers Children’s Center. Since the facility first opened its doors in 1974 as the Scott-Mississip-pi-New Madrid Counties United Cerebral Palsy Center treatment has always been free to parents.

Today, the center contracts therapy services to 22 state and public schools in nine counties. That work provides about two-thirds of the center’s approximate $1 million annual budget. The rest comes from private donations and a variety of fundraising efforts. With a staff of 18 — including 13 licensed therapists — the center treats more than 300 children, from birth to 21 years of age.

The center began with just one mother seeking help for a child diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a disorder characterized by impaired muscle control, seizures and involuntary movements. Initially, a core group of volunteers and parents, supported by donations from the local Eagles club, treated just five children. By 1977, when singer Kenny Rogers came to town to perform at the Sikeston Jaycees Bootheel Rodeo, the center served 23 children.

The four-day rodeo is the premier happening in Sikeston each year. These days the event features a different musical act each night but in the early years one star performed throughout the rodeo. The rodeo gates opened at night so community leaders entertained visiting celebrities during the day by showing them around town.

“As you can imagine, in Sikeston, Mo., with a population of about 18,000, there’s not a whole lot of things to show him,” says Fayette, who was in high school at the time and remembers Rogers’ visit. “Luckily they showed him the cerebral palsy center.”

Rogers was so impressed by what the group was doing with limited resources he donated an Arabian stallion. The horse brought $75,000 at auction and all the proceeds went to the center. To show its appreciation the center changed its name.

“I think he was very hesitant to have his name attached to the center. I think in some ways he thought he might be financially responsible,” Fayette says. “But, truly, it was just our way of saying, ‘Thank you, Kenny Rogers.’”

Although Rogers’ involvement is limited he does stay informed about activities at the center. He’s also largely responsible for the modern center children and their parents see today. In 1978 and ’79 Rogers and singer Dottie West held benefit concerts in Sikeston to support the center. Later he sponsored fundraising performances by Mel Tillis and the Gatlin Brothers.

“With those four benefit concerts that’s how we have the building that we’re currently in,” Fayette says. “In 2000 Kenny came back and did another benefit concert. We got a matching grant from the Interna-tional Lions and with that we were able to totally upgrade our center.”

The center is a state-of-the-art therapy facility that rivals those in large cities. Besides areas full of what appears to be play equipment — slides, swings, huge padded blocks and a treehouse-style play area — the center also features a number of high-tech therapy devices. Illumi-nated plastic columns filled with bubbling water respond to a child’s voice. A foot-operated touch pad plays musical notes and helps a child associate cause and effect. A large, heated water bed enclosure helps therapists teach severely handicapped children to roll over.

The Kenny Rogers Children's Center in Sikeston is housed in this building, funded in large part by benefit concerts. Photo courtesy of the Kenny Rogers Center.

While celebrity concerts have allowed the facility to grow, money for day-to-day expenses comes from the community. Besides the Jaycees, which funds the center through its annual rodeo, donations come from local Lions and Eagles clubs. Money is also raised through an annual telethon, auction and a charity walk.

“It doesn’t take just one club or organization any more. We have to raise about $350,000 a year. It takes everybody pitching in and all the communities,” Fayette says, adding that the center receives no federal funding.

“We get so much support from the Sikeston community and the surrounding communities,” she says. “I think they do realize that it’s unique and I think they’re proud of the services that we’re able to offer.”

Kenny Rogers’ name is on the center but a lot of ordinary people in and around Sikeston have made the center possible. Together they have created a children’s therapy facility unique in rural areas and even in big cities.

“Being able to provide the therapy for these children at no charge I think is a great asset to southeast Missouri,” Fayette says.

For more information call the Kenny Rogers Children’s Center at (573) 472-0397.

 

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