In Downey: ‘I’ve had a good life’
Neither forceps nor accidents nor cerebral palsy have deterred Dr. Maria French from a life of faith and service.
Visitors to Maria French’s home in Downey can either use a ramp to enter through the side door, or climb three small steps and pass through a swinging wooden door with the message “Welcome” carved on it.
And indeed, French opens her door with a bright, welcoming face, even though she has just returned from the airport from visiting relatives in Miami. On a chair next to the dining table is a photo collage of family, friends and her trips overseas; a couple of typed papers are carefully displayed on top of the table.
In her hands my future.
Hands that caused
pain with exercise of
lazy muscles that pulled
my body off center.
Meandering as a snake
battling stiffness and spasms
that made my legs and
arms like the legs of
“Dedicated to the life, love and dedication of my Mother, and all the mothers,” French wrote on “Mom,” one of her numerous poems. The letterhead includes a drawing of a wheelchair wheel pulled by angel wings on top of two hands trying to reach each other.
“Lazy muscles and feeling like a frog?” the visitor asks.
“Yes, my muscles were really lazy, haraganes,” she smiles. “I needed to move them and my mom made sure I did,” she says bluntly. Her mother also taught her to read and write in Spanish.
With laughter and tears --- and surrounded by pictures, paintings and crafts that evoke memories of her family and friends from the different countries she has visited --- the devout Our Lady of Perpetual Help parishioner talked about the painful and gratifying experiences she has endured since she was born in 1951.
For her boldness in talking about herself and the special needs population that she is part of, and for her credentials as a longtime special needs educator for the L.A. Unified School District, French was selected to deliver a bilingual keynote speech at the June 23 “Special needs catechesis workshop for catechists and catechetical leaders,” to be held at All Souls Church in Alhambra, sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education.
The event is a direct result of a series of meetings throughout the archdiocese promoted by the ORE since 2010 to respond to inquiries of parents of children with special needs who want them involved in Church but find little accessibility, explained Dione Grillo, archdiocesan consultant for elementary catechesis, advanced catechetical ministries and basic catechist formation.
At a few parishes, such as OLPH, parishioners who work in the secular world assisting the disabled, have taken the task of supporting this population in the church setting, but “there’s still much more to be done,” says French, who is also a specialist in sex education for people with special needs.
Most of the children or adults with disabilities are “mainstreamed,” or sent to regular services or programs, or directed to Vernon’s Holy Angels Church for the Deaf, said Grillo.
Although it was not her own experience, through her students French learned how the majority of special needs children are physically, mentally and sexually abused, many times by their own relatives; thus the need for spiritual guidance in their lives.
It was something she always received from her parents, especially her mother, and it kept her moving forward when many people doubted her. Like when she wanted to learn to drive a car, or, even earlier, at 8 years old when she pretended to be mute so her teachers would teach her English and not put her in a class for Spanish-speaking kids with learning disabilities.
“I can’t remember a day when I didn’t talk to God,” she smiles. “What I would like people to understand is that there is no shame in being disabled.”
A struggle from the start
It was a Sunday in her native Managua, Nicaragua, and Maria’s mother Leticia was about to give birth. All seemed to go well, but at the last minute things got complicated. Her mother’s cervix was too small and a Caesarean section was needed, but the physician decided to use forceps to deliver the baby.
Why forceps? “Well,” French says today, “it was Sunday, the doctor had taken one too many drinks and he decided to go the easy way.”
Her brain was “totally dented” and her body immediately turned blue. The medical personnel treated her as if she was dead, but her dad broke in and gave her oxygen, which kept her alive.
A few months later she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at a clinic in Dallas, where clinic personnel suggested her parents give her away to an institution.
Her parents refused, but the first years of Maria’s life were challenging, and at age three the only ones who could understand her mumbling were her same-age cousins. “My relatives thought I was retarded,” she says.
But although she could not coordinate her movements, she could very well coordinate her thoughts. She recalls at how at a very young age she talked (almost bargained) with God.
“Papa Chu (Father Jesus), please help me lift my head,” she prayed as she lay in a crib staring at the ceiling because she could barely move her head. “How am I going to be able to help other people if you don’t help me?”
And slowly she developed her motor skills until, at 8 years old, she was walking.
As a devout Catholic, she believes the miracle happened after she “forced” her mother to visit the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City on a trip back to Nicaragua from treatments in the U.S.
One uncle was ambassador in Mexico and in one day arranged for the girl to receive her first Communion at the Basilica. A couple of months later she was walking without the 10-pound braces she used on her tiny legs.
But, at 13 she slipped on a banana peeling and broke her hip, which sent her to a wheelchair until she was in her 20s. With the help of experimental treatments she started walking again until five years ago, when she was hit by a car at a parking lot.
‘A believer in education’
Despite her condition, French always knew she would achieve much in the intellectual field. “I’m a firm believer in education,” she said, and her credentials prove that, having earned a bachelor of science in abnormal psychology, a master of science in education and a doctorate in special education and abnormal psychology from the University of Southern California.
She was the first “severely disabled” person to be hired as a teacher and counselor by the L.A. Unified School District, where she worked for 30 years until she retired after her last accident to become a motivational educator and speaker. (She worked for another year after the accident, but the pain was so excruciating that she chose to retire.)
She is on the board of directors of nonprofit AbilityFirst, a provider of rehabilitation services for special needs children and adults, and vice president of the Jones-Kanaar Charitable Foundation that awards scholarships to economically disadvantaged high school students. She says she values the chance to be an advocate and role model for disabled youth, especially those in minority communities.
And she was the only caregiver for her mother in the last two years of her life about 12 years ago, and took her father on emergency trips to the hospital until he passed away.
As an active Catholic, she chooses to remain positive. She says she long ago forgave the physician who used forceps to deliver her (though she admits that she “never wanted to know about him anymore”). And she enjoys receiving visitors at home.
“I’ve had a good life!” she exclaims.