In mid-October, 34-year-old J.R. Clewell walked in the door at Holy Angels and things haven’t been quite the same since.
The absence of a wheelchair amazed everyone who’d known him years earlier, when he was a young resident of the nonprofit center for children and adults with disabilities.
J.R. first arrived as a tiny infant suffering from a muscular disability similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease. With no muscle tone, he was unable to lift his head from the pillow, unable to do most anything. Medical experts predicted a short, unproductive life.
But here he came in the fall, back to the place he hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years, all 5 feet, 83 pounds – moving on his own.
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Regina Moody, president and CEO of the Sisters of Mercy-run Holy Angels, couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw him.
“I got a lump in my throat,” she said. “He was truly a miracle when he walked in.”
Moody met J.R. in 1982, about two months after he came to Holy Angels, his home for the next eight years. She remembers a helpless baby in a small wicker basket, his arms and legs flopping.
“The prognosis was very poor for him,” she said. “He wasn’t expected to live.”
Return to first home
The Holy Angels reunion was an unscheduled event made possible by Robin Davis of Belmont, a retired licensed practical nurse. She’d once worked in the center’s nursing department and knew J.R. since he was 2. He was a patient who became a close friend and they never lost touch.
Davis sees J.R. regularly, driving him to the grocery store or wherever he wants to go. When they stopped in Belmont in October, J.R. saw a sign in a convenience store plugging an upcoming fundraising event at Holy Angels, and wondered aloud what things were like there.
“Do you want to go?” Davis asked.
“Well,” he replied, “I think I do.”
Started 61 years ago by the Sisters of Mercy, Holy Angels has grown from a single building to eight residences on a 14-acre campus and operates two group homes in Belmont. Programs and services include education, vocational training, horticulture therapy and medical services. The LifeChoices program in Cramerton offers day activities and life skills programs for adults and children. Holy Angels has a staff of more than 350, more than 100 volunteers and a $13 million budget funded by government money, donations, grants and community support.
There are 85 residents, some of whom have delicate medical conditions and require around-the-clock care. J.R. was one of these residents.
As an infant, he was referred to Holy Angels by the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services. Holy Angels Medical Director Ellis Fisher saw a bleak future for the baby with a feeding tube.
“I thought he’d never live to school age,” Fisher said. “But God stepped in and I stepped back in amazement and watched it happen.”
Slowly, with therapy and close attention, J.R. improved. He was able to sit in a little red wheelchair and roll around the halls, charming staff with banter and smiling eyes.
“He was snatched away from a miserable prognosis,” Fisher said. “There’s no explanation this side of eternity.”
J.R. looked on Holy Angels as home. He called Davis’ mother “mom’’ and Davis “Big Sister.” He loved them all, and he loved Holy Angels. But he wanted something more.
Then Mike and Kathy Clewell entered the picture.
‘He really needs a family’
The Clewells were licensed foster parents who had already adopted seven children. One was a seriously disabled 5-year-old boy who was not expected to live. The couple, who had recently moved to Charlotte from Indiana, began looking for a facility where the child might be placed if anything happened to them. Someone mentioned Holy Angels and they went to take a look around.
“This little boy in a motorized wheelchair followed us around everywhere we went,” Clewell recalled. “I asked a social worker who that little boy was and she said, ‘That’s J.R. He really needs a family.’ ”
Clewell already had a house full of kids. The couple went home and a few months later their 5-year-old son died. They got a call from Holy Angels, asking if they’d like to adopt J.R. Although they wanted a baby, they went over to meet J.R. anyway. Standing in his room, Kathy Clewell noticed a drawing on one wall. It showed a woman with red hair and a tall man with dark hair and mustache – just like the Clewells.
A staffer told the couple J.R. had drawn it when they were there before, commenting: “That’s going to be my family.”
Kathy Clewell’s hesitation to adopt another child faded.
“How could I say no then?” she recalled. “The picture is what did it for me.”
J.R. became the newest member of their family, still in a wheelchair. Soon he was telling Mike Clewell: “Dad, I want to walk.”
With the help of his new parents, J.R. began trying. The going was slow and grueling.
“It took ages to get him to take three steps,” Kathy Clewell said. Then he got braces, hating them but thriving with the support of his family. The progress continued.
“We believed in him,” Clewell said. “In church he got a lot of prayers – he’s loved wherever he goes.”
In time, she said, J.R. “crossed the barrier” of disability.
“He’s a tremendously strong person. In his mind, he can do whatever he wants to do.”
Telling his story
On his October visit, J.R. met with Moody, the Holy Angels CEO, and others he’d known years ago. He told them about his adoptive parents and how he was now able, through a great effort, to walk short distances.
He had graduated with honors from East Mecklenburg High School and developed a love for music. Ever productive, he earned a little money repairing computers from home, a small apartment in Charlotte where he lived alone for the past eight years.
He plays drums and keyboard, writes songs like “Fight for Love” and was music worship leader at a Charlotte church. He also helped with music in a church in Atlanta while attending a music ministry school there. And he assisted with relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
He’s proud of his achievements and is planning for more. In 2017, J.R. hopes to do a music concert with friends at Holy Angels. His long-term dream is to start his own music studio.
Someday, he’d like to travel and see places like Honolulu, the Bahamas and Ireland, where he feels a connection since the Sisters of Mercy started there.
As Moody listened, it occurred to her that he was the first former Holy Angels resident so severely disabled who was ever able to live independently. Occasionally, as he spoke, J.R. laughed, but no smile showed. Without muscle tone, smiling was something he could never do.
Now, as she had in the past, Moody spotted a smile elsewhere – in his eyes.
“His eyes always spoke,” she said. “They were very bright even as an infant. You could tell he was trying to see the world.”
Before J.R. left Holy Angels that day, he had accepted an offer to return one afternoon a week to volunteer in the center’s Lynn and Don Leonard Music Therapy Program for residents. The program wasn’t available when J.R. lived there, but he had received other therapy, from speech to physical and developmental. And they had provided the foundation he had continued to build on when he left at age 8.
Now, J.R. is anxious to give back to the place that gave so much to him.
“Holy Angels is where it started for me,” J.R. said. “The fact of being loved and felt loved – that was the biggest thing. Some people don’t get the opportunity I’m getting. It is a blessing from God to live the life I’ve lived up to this point.”
On a recent afternoon during music therapy, as the tune of “Winter Wonderland” filled the room, J.R. tapped on a tambourine beside a little girl in a recliner. Her eyes were closed, but the faint flicker of a smile appeared on her lips. Other children in recliners or wheelchairs also showed various levels of response to the music.
J.R. played a small part in the therapy session. But being able to help other Holy Angels residents gave him a great sense of fulfillment.
When it was time to go, J.R. told Moody, “I hope you won’t get tired of seeing me.”
“Never,” she said as they hugged. “Never.”