MY STORY AS A YOUNG MOTHER IS PROBABLY NOT MUCH DIFFERENT THAN MOST. Becoming a mother was all I had ever wanted and I was beyond excited when my journey into motherhood began. I wanted my family to be similar to my childhood experience – with devoted parents who pursed their dreams and raised their family in a loving Christian home. I married Steele Gudal (my college sweetheart) who was entrepreneurial in nature like my father, Jim DeVoe, Sr. In fact, I always joke that my father fell in love with him first! Shortly after the engagement ring was on my finger, Steele dropped out of an MBA program at Oral Roberts University to work in sales for my father’s company, J.D. Byrider, and support his dream of making J.D. Byrider, the used car sales and finance franchise, a nationwide success. Soon after our wedding, Steele left the corporate side of the company to set off with his best friend from college to become J.D. Byrider franchisees. Less than two years and two locations later, Steele returned to the J.D. Byrider corporate office as the Chief Executive Officer. It wasn’t always easy having both my father and husband work side-by-side but they grew and persevered and developed a respect for the other’s giftings and leadership styles. I stayed home to care for our children, Gabrielle and Gentry, two girls 13 months apart.
Both girls were born full-term, healthy, and thriving; however, both would eventually regress. Each took a different mode of regression. Gabrielle’s started around six months. Things began to shift developmentally as Gabrielle’s milestones became more stretched out, but she persevered and slowly learned at her own pace. Gabrielle’s developmental delays have never received a definitive diagnosis and she has always desired a life alongside everyone else. Gentry, on the other hand, had a quick regression after multiple rounds of antibiotics and routine vaccines between 12-15 months and was eventually diagnosed with autism. Our once talkative and interactive child began a path of regression, crying, running away, and aloofness. It was the most heart wrenching as there were no answers. Gentry, like her sister, developed difficulty sleeping and became very picky, limiting her foods to three items. It was by the grace of God that I survived those early years. The challenges parents face while raising/loving a child with autism are far-reaching and endless: unknown etiology, expensive therapies often with minimal outcomes and sometimes regression, special diets, lack of sleep, flight risk, minimal to no expressive language, social isolation, and excessive, repetitive, and aggressive behaviors and more. Fortunately, the joys and triumphs are far-reaching and endless as well. As I learned to embrace Gentry as a child who God made, I saw a new beauty. She lives life from the heart. She is not constrained by social norms. She has a unique sensitivity to those who need love and compassion and many days when despair crept in, she would insist I interact with her to keep me from depression. I’ve always said that the depth of the pain is also a measure of the depth of God’s mercy and grace if we allow that pain-generated chasm to be filled. I have also learned from the pain that it is best not to fill that void yourself but to live openheartedly and walk in trust that what God can do with it is far better than I could ever dream or imagine. A diagnosis of autism throws parents into grief. Most people are familiar with the stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While this is true, parents living with a child with a disability will experience these phases in different severity throughout their lives in a non-linear fashion. With support and faith even as small as the grain of a mustard seed, there is beauty and joy to be unearthed amidst the challenges. My personal story is that I spent almost the first six years after the diagnosis in denial. While I wasn’t in denial about the diagnosis itself, I was about its outcome. I made it my life’s mission to recover my daughter, Gentry, from autism’s label at the price of losing sight of who she was as God’s beautiful creation. I now compare this to a riptide. If I swam against autism’s strong current, I would become exhausted and drown. Instead, if I went against my instinct and (by faith) swam away from it, I would make it to shore. I look back at this time as me fighting a rip current and I was left exhausted and disappointed. The start of healing was when I realized that fighting this battle differently would drastically change the outcome it had not only on my child but on my family and others I encountered who were in similar situations. Steele, ever the entrepreneur, decided to visit a center for children with autism in Florida with his close friend, Rick Stanley. They both returned excited to start something similar in Indianapolis. Why not gather together families approaching autism using similar theories and with similar belief systems? We hypothesized that not only would the children benefit from their interaction, but our facility, the first and still the only non-profit facility serving persons with autism, would be a blessing to the whole family as it was our aim to approach the process holistically by providing in services, individual-directed therapy, and respite care. Turning our pain into positive energy and becoming a blessing to others was a huge part of our healing. We went from isolation to community. One strong take away for me has been this: the shared life is the best life. Through the entrepreneurial work of founding a center, we went from desperately grasping at straws to a big picture mentality of how suffering could actually be turned around to healing. As marriage partners, we could move forward on a parallel plane. No longer on separate trajectories, we could find healing and hope and balance. As with most family businesses, we faced rough times and, after eight years, a decision was made that it would be best for Steele to step out of his role in the corporate franchise office of J.D. Byrider and into the role of a franchisee. Before Gentry was even able to finish her first year in the newly established center, we made the decision to relocate to Florida. As painful as this transition was, my father never lost his adoration for Gentry and his commitment to being a benefactor to the center as well as maintain his position on the board. Just when we had found our stride in Florida, tragedy nearly swept us off of our feet when Steele and my father died in a private plane crash in March of 2006. It was in this moment I realized my deep gratitude for their restored relationship and the forgiveness they had found. At this critical time, a friend and business comrade of Steele’s (also a former employee at J.D. Byrider) and my younger brother, Ryan DeVoe, stepped forward in the name of Steele and my father’s memory to direct and guide the course of the organization’s future. Ryan’s role as board member helped through a difficult transition while Steele’s friend continues Steele’s legacy as chair of the board of directors. At his direction and in its 15th year of operation, the center boasts six thriving locations throughout Indiana and serves approximately 175 clients and their families. His commitment not only reflects his care for the center but also his deep love for our family. In his own words, “When I see Steele in heaven I would like him to tell me that I did a good job with the organization and we kept it on track.” With a long career in finance, he came to the board with minimal personal knowledge about autism. “I have learned a lot from the team over these years concerning autism and the learners who we serve.” In the midst of his learning he has provided extraordinary leadership by applying proven business principles. The center continues to thrive organizationally while striking the balance between consistent organizational development and remarkable growth in size, scope, and influence. The chairman of the board puts it best, “We are 15 years old and I’ve been involved for about ten of those years. As the need for what we provide continues to grow, I look forward to how we can serve these great kids and their families over the next ten years.” Things for me happen in twos and two years after the tragic plane crash, I married Howard, a former missionary and 45-year-old bachelor who embraced my beautiful girls as his own. The transition was made magical by the relationship Howard and Gentry quickly developed with art. They would paint for hours together. The turbulent teen years were lessened by the release of emotion Gentry experienced when she painted. Again, we took something positive – Howard and Gentry’s shared artistic talent and passion – and used it for Gentry’s personal growth and to raise money and awareness for autism in our community. Making the conscious decision to flow with the riptide and give God space to design beauty from pain, another magical moment overcame us on our autism journey. At age 18 and non-verbal, Gentry was able to unleash her voice through a typing therapy and heard her words for the first time. “Sweet to see my letters easy to free my thoughts.” Our lives were forever changed – a rebirth for us. Gentry could guide us and share her hopes and dreams with us. I am completely blown away by my beautiful, forceful, and passionate daughter. She is my heart’s inspiration. When I am having a bad day, I just think of the constant struggle she faces not only being unable to control the excessive impulses of her body but not always having access to her voice. It has become Howard is and my mission to bring a “meaningful” life to Gentry and others like her through our new charity project: Peace of Heart Community (POHC). POHC will be a residential group home for 6 beautiful young women with autism as well as a sustainable organic garden, art program, and an enrichment center where lifelong learning will be the norm and open for all to our community to share. While we cannot save the world from the tsunami of autism, we can be a beacon of light for other communities to show the possibility of a better way: the way of the heart where the shared life is a beautiful reality. In my journey of life I have seen some unexpected riptides; however, I have also seen how God provides us with just what we need to not only survive but thrive in the riptide. To learn more about Peace of Heart Community visit: WWW.PEACEOFHEARTCOMMUNITY.ORG
Written by: Amy (DeVoe) Groshell