PARIS, TN — The 63rd Lions Club/WPSD Telethon of Stars benefits three local centers that help children and adults with special needs. When you give to the Telethon, you make it possible for them to have access to vital services.
Hunter is on of those children. He's this year's "star" representing northwest Tennessee and University of Tennessee at Martin Infant Stimulation. He's a 2-year-old with a ton of personality. When he was born, though, his future was uncertain. Thanks to UTM Infant Stimulation, a program that works with babies and toddlers with disabilities or delays, the sky's the limit for him.
Carrie Bush, an early interventionist with UTM Infant Stimulation, looks like she's playing with Hunter. They're naming farm animals and learning what noises they make. It's a lot more than play, though. Hunter is working on his speech.
"He's come a long way in his recovery," Bush said.
His whole family has made big strides.
"When he sees her, she's family," SuzAnne Gordon, Hunter's mom, said of the special connection Hunter and Bush have.
Bush said the recovery process can be overwhelming for kids at times. "And sometimes it's just...it's overwhelming to have a typical child, but then when you have the atypical, it's just tenfold," she said.
Hunter was born with NAS, neonatal abstinence syndrome. Click here to learn more about the condition.
"It's where a child is born addicted to drugs," Bush explained. "He was probably one of the more severe that I have seen."
Shortly after Hunter was born, he was put in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit. For weeks, he was inside an incubator, going through withdrawal. He couldn't be held, or even touched.
"Any kind of interaction with him hurt him. Physically," Gordon said.
Gordon isn't his birth mom, but she's been by his side almost from the start.
"It's an image that I will never forget. When Hunter was born, he was gray looking; he was rigid. It was a scary, scary circumstance," Gordon said. "He had to go through what his birth parents were not strong enough to do themselves. They put on a child, a baby, something that they couldn't even do."
"We did not think that he would be able to possibly sit up, walk, talk, just be a normal little baby," Gordon said.
But Bush said, when she met Hunter, "I thought he was determined."
Hunter's proven that determination — much of it thanks to the fact that Bush can travel to the Gordon's home. UTM Infant Stimulation Program Director Lori Wilson said a large chunk of their budget funds that critical service: traveling to the homes of families in their six-county coverage area. Their funding hasn't increased, but the number of families they serve has.
"With the telethon funds, we're able to do travel, or not necessarily worry about travel as much," Wilson said.
That gives families like Hunter's one less thing to worry about.
"To be honest, it's been hard. I mean, financially," Gordon said. "The services they provide are a godsend."
"He's incredible to be around, his journey," Bush said. "It's inspiring."
This is more than a job to Bush, it's a calling. The light bulb moments make every struggle more than worth it.
"The first time he got up on his hands and knees and actually went, because we worked on that for months and he just was not having it. And then it was just like, we worked on it that first time I came in that day, and I put him in that crawling position, and he just kinda' inchwormed, and I was like, ahh!" Bush said with excitement.
The Gordon family officially adopted Hunter in July, but he's always been part of their family.
"The very first time that I laid eyes on him, I knew. It was a God thing," Gordon said.
She also knows Bush and UTM Infant Stimulation have had an immeasurable impact on their family.
"It's the difference between him having a normal life and what could have been," Gordon said.
Now, it's only what will be.
"God has a plan for this little man," she said.
To learn more about UTM Infant Stimulation, click here.
The 63rd Lions Club/WPSD Telethon of Stars airs at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 14. The concert, featuring local talent at Paducah's Carson Center, is free to attend. Click here to learn more details and to donate.