Universally Inspirational

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

I've figured out that, over the course of my 16 years in journalism, I've interviewed more than 3,000 people. And though I can't always match names to faces whenever I re-encounter one of them, I usually feel a jolt that tells me there's a name buried somewhere in my mental hard drive to go with that face.

Such was the case in February when I found myself sitting on a bench, watching a training session at the Canine Companions for Independence facility in Delaware. Teens and children who have a wide range of disabilities were partnered with their parents and learning how to work with their new companion dogs.

I noticed a mom, her teen-aged son and their new companion, Ilene, a beautiful golden-haired dog. But it was mom and son with their bright, beautiful eyes whom I noticed most.

"I think I know them," I whispered to Laurel Marks, a spokeswoman for Canine Companions who was deciphering what I observed during the training session.

As it turned out, I did know them. They were Janine and Derek Maher, and I had met them nine years earlier on a blustery winter day in a newly built park, just north of Powell. The Liberty Township park was the site of what would become Ohio's first universally accessible playground.

Universally accessible playgrounds are better even than Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant playgrounds: At least 70 percent of UA playgrounds have to be accessible to children who use support equipment like wheelchairs and braces, whereas only 25 percent of ADA playgrounds have to be accessible.

Ironically, I had already slated the Liberty Park Every Kid's Playground as our Playground Patrol destination for this issue.

But back in December 2001, Derek, a very energetic 7-year-old, was in the early stages of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a degenerative muscle disorder, and he ran around the bare grass fields of Liberty Park with only a mild limp as evidence of his condition. I remember also being struck by Janine's brisk and no-nonsense approach to managing her son's challenges.

So on this particular February day, nine years later, I got to meet the energy and the no-nonsense again. Here I found a 16-year-old young man in a wheelchair and it was easy to see that his childhood energy now had an outlet in a very lively mind.

How many teens do you know who can tell you that the 1980s pop tune "Come On, Eileen" (that we were joking they should sing to their new companion dog) was the work of Irish band Dexy's Midnight Runners? Derek retrieved that bit of trivia from his brain faster than I could from mine.

And Janine was just as no-nonsense and forward-thinking as ever, explaining she had first begun planning to get Derek a companion dog 10 years earlier when she met another young man, now a college graduate, who used his dog to manage daily life with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

As a journalist, I have the duty to tell the stories of some truly amazing people. But I also have the privilege to fill my mental hard drive with tales of lasting inspiration. Believe me when I say that these stories are impossible to erase, and I think you'll find plenty of them in this month's issue.

Follow Jane Hawes on Twitter at @Jane_Hawes