PROVO — Looking for a dose of positive reinforcement that the human race is moving in the right direction? You could do worse than dropping by an unimposing little place in an office park on the west side of town with a sign out front that reads: Now I Can.
Walk inside, and you’ll run into kids with a lot more problems than most of the rest of us. They have cerebral palsy, or spina bifida, or some other kind of physical disability usually caused by nothing more than being born with it.
And what are they doing about it? Getting busy, that’s what. They’re exercising their little hearts out, and grinning while they’re at it.
Each day, a team of specially trained physical therapists puts the kids through their paces — four hours at a time, five days a week, for three weeks straight, and sometimes more. It’s intensive, it’s extensive, it’s repetitive, and, as the perpetual waiting list for reservations at the Now I Can clinic attests, it works.
And if you think that’s inspiring, wait’ll you hear the story behind how it all got started.
Almost 15 years ago, a young couple, Joel and Tracey Christensen, celebrated the birth of the first of their three children, a beautiful girl named Colby Anne. But there was a mitigating circumstance. She was born with hemiplegic cerebral palsy, a neuromuscular condition that affected movement on the right side of her body.
The Christensens got Colby into traditional physical therapy right away, but the once-a-week, hour-long sessions weren’t making much progress. Then they heard about a clinic in Poland — that Poland, the one that’s 5,500 miles away on another continent — where kids stayed weeks at a time and were treated several hours daily in a regimen called the Intensive Model of Therapy.
Joel and Tracey didn’t have a private jet, or, for that matter, any extra cash lying around to buy plane tickets to Poland. So they got an artist friend to design Christmas cards and they sold the cards — 10,000 of them at a dollar each — to finance their trip.
In Poland, Colby, at 4 years old, made dramatic strides, quite literally. After her first few sessions, she greeted her parents, wiggled her right side, and said, “Now I Can!”
Hooked on the new approach, Joel and Tracey searched for somewhere closer to home for similar treatment and found a clinic in Georgia doing intensive therapy, but that was still a long way to travel.
Then they had a brainstorm. Why not set one up in Provo?
They dipped into their retirement, they got a loan from mom and dad, they fundraised. When they had enough money to get started they wrote the therapists in Poland and asked them to come to Utah to train therapists here, and help them equip the new clinic.
The Christensens didn’t have to go to all that trouble. They could have put the necessary equipment in their home and hired therapists to work with Colby.
But as Tracey puts it, “We were so excited to have found something that worked, and people had been so generous to us. We didn’t want to hog it all to ourselves, we wanted to share.”
In May of 2006 they opened the Now I Can clinic as a nonprofit charity, ensuring that it would be affordable for everyone (medical costs are covered by insurance, grants and private donations).
To make it even more affordable, they raised enough money for the foundation to purchase a three-bedroom home on the east side of Provo, where families of the kids in therapy – they come from all over the country – can stay for $15 a night. The Now I Can Cottage opened its doors two years ago and has been in high demand ever since.
Just this past week, the backyard of the cottage was torn up to make way for a playground where kids of all abilities can play side by side. A large contingent from doTerra, the direct sales giant located in Pleasant Grove, provided the man- and woman-power, chipping away cement, digging up sod and remaking the backyard into a playground paradise.
Volunteers and generosity are the lifeblood of Now I Can, the Christensens affirm. They point out that the front yard at the cottage was landscaped by the BYU football team’s offensive line, that the weekly yard work is taken care of by the student service club YServe, that Eagle Scout projects are responsible for the wheelchair ramp and much of the furniture inside the house, and that the comfortable beds are courtesy of a grateful family that stayed there a while back.
If the selfless support doesn’t flag — and there are no signs of that happening — Now I Can plans to continue to serve some 80 to 100 kids a year indefinitely, or until childhood disabilities end, whichever comes first.
Heading into their ninth year, the Christensens have no intention of slowing down either. Joel, whose day job is in the finance department at BYU, keeps the clinic's books and Tracey serves as executive director. “He’s budget and finance and I just dream,” she says.
And as for Colby Anne, when school starts at Provo High, look for her at the football games. The ninth-grader made this year’s JV cheerleading squad.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: [email protected]