"How wrong they were," Randy's mom says of the early specialists who grossly overestimated how limiting this brave boy's cerebral palsy would be. Randy has since graduated high school and is enrolled in college in Manhattan.
Randy Reyes (right) and his mother, Maria Aller Narváez, at Randy’s graduation from the High School of Graphic Communication Arts in Manhattan two years ago
Doctors said Randy Reyes, born with cerebral palsy and multiple health complications, would never walk or talk. His chance of survival was slim.
His mother, Maria Aller Narváez, saw things differently, though.
“I saw his eyes and saw life in his body,” she recalls. “I decided I will do whatever I can to help my son.”
That was more than 21 years ago. And along the way, Randy has defied many—except his mother.
“I always wanted him to be as independent as possible and have him do everything for himself,” Narváez says. “Parents are not here forever, and young adults with special needs have to have their own life.”
Randy, a sophomore at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, graduated with honors from the High School of Graphic Communication Arts in 2012.
“It makes me feel normal,” Randy, who lives in Hudson Heights with his mother and older brother, said at his high school graduation.
Where It All Started
Randy began his education at the New York League for Early Learning preschool for children with special needs in Manhattan in the summer of 1994, just before his second birthday. NYL is a member of YAI, a network that includes more than 450 programs in the New York metro area that serve people of all ages with developmental disabilities and their families. Marcie Weiss, who was his preschool teacher, recalls Randy as a sweet child who was always smiling. “He tried so hard to say words, and even though he struggled, he still smiled. Even as he walked down the hall in his [leg] braces, he was smiling.”
Randy attended a mainstream kindergarten at the urging of his mother.
“Mom was his anchor,” says Patricia Harmon, who was principal of NYL Gramercy School at the time. “Many of us at the preschool thought a special education program would be best for Randy because he had so many challenges,” she says.
His mother, however, would not budge. She believed in her son and saw beyond his disability.
“I still remember when the CPSE [Committee on Preschool Education] chairperson told me that according to his performance he will attend a small, restrictive class for kids with severe disabilities, and his speech therapist repeated that he will not be able to talk,” Narváez says. “How wrong they were.”
Afterward, she spent many sleepless nights. She knew that even though Randy had not developed language skills, he was intelligent. And he was walking at his preschool—something the doctors never thought possible.
Wisdom and Hard Work
Narváez recalled listening to Mary Somoza, a parent who had twin girls with cerebral palsy, speak at a parent meeting at the Gramercy School. (Parents would frequently meet to provide support to one another and also to prepare younger parents for the next step—life after preschool.) Somoza described how she fought to have her daughter Alba, who was placed in a smaller restrictive classroom for children with disabilities, placed into a mainstream class. “She changed my life,” Narváez says. “She opened the doors for so many families. She became my role model.”
Narváez learned about augmentative communication and how new technology was emerging to help children and adults with disabilities who were not verbal. Eventually, CPSE agreed to have one of the therapists who worked with Alba evaluate Narváez’s son. “The therapist said, ‘Wow, he’s so smart. He will be able to be placed in a mainstream kindergarten,’” Narváez says.
“Maria taught us to never underestimate a child’s ability,” Harmon says.
Randy acknowledges that he has had to overcome multiple challenges, including numerous surgeries, over the years. “I’ve never asked for special consideration,” Randy says. “I’ve earned everything I’ve got.”
And his family has been a big help. “My brother treated me like any other little brother,” Randy says. “He’s a big part of why I have such a unique personality. He helped me learn how to be me.”
Narváez, who is the first to provide support and advice to parents of children with special needs, admits that giving Randy the room to grow was not always easy. “I sometimes see parents intervening too much in their children’s lives,” she says. “The parents are afraid to give their adult child the power to make decisions.”
After traveling with her son to and from his college a few times, Narváez proudly says that Randy is now making the trip on his own. He takes the A train downtown, and then a bus. The commute takes anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour.
“I was nervous, but I had to teach him to be careful crossing streets and traveling independently,” she says. “He’s more confident traveling on his own now, and he advocates for himself at college.”
“The thing that keeps me going is that there’s something good I can do for the world,” says Randy, who plans to major in computer sciences. He would also like to study speech pathology at Pace University, so he can help teens with special needs.
His message to parents: “Don’t give up on your child so soon, and don’t believe what the psychologists tell you. You know your child better.”