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Hope After Apocalypse

January 4, 2022

In 2005, immigrants with spinal cord injuries living in Houston were notified by the hospital district of Harris County that they would stop receiving their catheters, diapers, and wheelchairs because they were uninsured, and, being undocumented, ineligible now for public healthcare. The irony cut deep: Houston is home to the largest medical center in the world, home also to the hidden class of these who have broken their backs to help build much of its infrastructure.

But survival has a strange way of birthing solidarity, and soon the injured were organizing. They sold flowers in streets, raffled off televisions in churches, organized car washes and sold food to gather resources and buy medical supplies that they would then distribute and share amongst themselves. Little by little, they found themselves populating a coordinated human linkage map that could locate wheelchairs and catheters on demand and also be agile to run to every suffering crack lost to mainstream visibility in the onslaught of mass disaster.

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Manuel Guardardo, Board Member and Engineer (Steve Jeter)  

                                                                        

When Hurricane Harvey devastated the region in 2017, Living Hope found itself serving these crevices in a way no large agency was or could. Hundreds of handicapped people were caught in flooding and ruined homes, their isolation and inability to flee compounded by undocumented status and fear of contacting the official rescue channels. Living Hope’s volunteers stretched and sought out those who were slipping through the cracks, staunching the existential immediacies and embarking on long-term recovery work. Volunteers scrounged up cash grants for those whose houses had been ruined. They troubleshooted when case managers disappeared, finding new ones, setting up better support systems. They found and matched partner organizations to coordinate rescues and distribute medical supplies. They provided legal counsel when ICE had been contacted.

Triaging a crisis that was consuming Houston’s public powers, Living Hope began distributing catheters, diapers, wheelchairs and medical supplies to anyone who would show up – including veterans and other U.S. citizens unable to find aid through official channels. Volunteers gained confidence and verbal fluency in exposing the public policy barriers to meaningful recovery, including a lack of affordable and safe housing, a lack of shelters equipped for persons in wheelchairs, fear of ICE enforcement that discouraged those in need from seeking refuge in a shelter, language barriers for those seeking food, archaic processes for receiving recovery aid and a preference for homeowners over renters.

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This fluency has more recently matured into credibility, a credibility that is finding its way into the halls of public policy in one of the most watched cities of the American future. Living Hope has persuaded the Houston Commission on Disabilities to establish a committee for immigrants and refugees with disabilities. It is campaigning to make Houston’s MetroLife service wheelchair-accessible, as well as advocating for more bilingual bus dispatchers. The mayor’s advisory council welcomed Living Hope to the “Welcoming Houston” initiative, which seeks to identify concrete local policies to make the city more friendly to immigrants and refugees. Living Hope has even made inroads in persuading local police to be more circumspect in collaborating with immigration officials.

But at the core of Living Hope’s power is a simple if rare covenant, a true community that embodies precisely the kind of intersectional safety net our collective future of natural disasters will require in the decades ahead. The kind of community that they’ve come to experience as essential. The kind that holds the potential to convict our peculiarly American crisis of solidarity and birth a different and more beautiful way.

Solidarity in the Scars

19-year-old Guillermo De La Rosa was just helping a friend remove an engine from a pick-up truck when life as he knew it ended. Removing the transmission, he was surprised to find that the truck had nothing holding its tires, and it began rolling off the ramp. As he turned around to try to quickly get out of the way, an iron rod sticking out of the truck struck him on the neck, piercing his spinal cord. Doctors told him he would never be able to move anything beneath his shoulders again.

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Guillermo De La Rosa, Communications Coordinator (Steve Jeter)

         

Francisco Cedillo was playing pool in 1999 when a waitress alerted him to the fact that some guys at another pool table had gone out to mess with his car in the parking lot. He went out to see what was going on, when he came upon them stealing the car stereo. They argued for some minutes before the owner of the bar came out and scared away the interlopers. Thinking they’d completely run off, Francisco turned to speak to his pool buddy. Suddenly he felt a blow at his back. It was an iron cross typically used to remove car tires, hitting him on the vertebral column. His companion left him lying there for two hours until 2 AM, until a woman leaving the bar saw him and called an ambulance. The next day he was told he would never walk again. His fiancé broke off their engagement within weeks.

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Francisco Cedillo, Interim Co-Director

  

Maria was in a car accident with her boyfriend, their wedding a month away. She broke two of her vertebrates while her boyfriend died en route to the hospital.

These are just a few of the fractures that lie beneath what is known as Living Hope.

“When you have an accident,” says Guillermo, “the first thing you think about is wanting to die. Living Hope has helped many people continue living.”

WATCH / Members of Living Hope share their reflections on life anew
STEPHEN JETER

Guillermo is now the organization’s communications lead, responding to disaster calls, reaching out to constituents. Francisco helps to locate the legal, cultural and linguistic barriers that block those in need from receiving services. Maria is now mother to a precocious four-year-old and Living Hope’s data navigator – she locates food banks, rent assistance, free medical care and anything else that can help fill the security gaps.

“After an accident we are born again,” says Guillermo. “It is as if we are children again. The new life may be more difficult, but we can live it well and we can be useful to humanity.”

A support community turned 501(c)3 organization, Living Hope is almost entirely run by those who themselves have been disabled by injury or disease. It is a supply delivery service that has become a civic pioneer, an advocacy power and, perhaps most crucially, a family.

Saving that Which is Saving You

“Sometimes you are at home in pain, depressed, and you come here and forget everything,” says Guillermo. “Everything changes when I arrive at the office and work with my colleagues.”

Each one of the staff members endures physical pain, sometimes excruciating. We’re gathered in the supply garage on Westview Drive for a simple lunch of Subway sandwiches and Coca Cola, and winces regularly shadow otherwise peaceful faces.

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“In the first moment,” Guillermo says before taking a bite, “the first years I was always depressed, not wanting to go out. I did not see the sun, nobody saw me. I was ashamed.”

Over time Guillermo began to realize that the isolation was killing him. He started to meet others with similar injuries who appeared happy, who possessed a kind of joy he didn’t know was possible. Gradually he joined their number, melting and maturing as his companions’ countenances and purposeful work displaced his despair. “It is a job to accept disability,” he says now. “It is difficult, but you have to accept it in order to get ahead.”

The organization empowers each person’s sense of agency, immediately granting a sense of belonging while also providing roles for each person’s gifts and capacities. There is no room for pity here; rather than settling as a set of temporary stilts for survival, Living Hope conceives of itself as a vehicle for permanent change.

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“Living Hope should always be at the table with FEMA when disaster strikes,” says Jade Flores, who works with West Street Recovery and helps organize immigrant families to fight deportations. She’s partnered with Living Hope on multiple occasions, and believes this community of disabled immigrants has an unrivaled perspective into the cross-section of barriers that make it impossible to find assistance when floods, freezes, and pandemics overwhelm a region. There is something about Living Hope’s intimate familiarity with physical handicap and civic condemnation, she says, that breath oxygen into tired debates and command attention.

But it’s not always easy to be a border stalker, to embody hotly contested “issues” as persons, as a community. Living Hope straddles two populations whose respective marginalization has grown louder and more disturbingly unresolved in recent years. Volunteers are affected by the immigrant debates but don’t fit neatly inside of them. They are invited to speak at national conferences focused on disability rights, but they can also get pulled over while driving their custom wheelchair van and risk deportation.

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Francisco (Pancho) Argüelles, former Executive Director (2012 to 2021)

     

“This is a group of people belonging to communities who have been under attack throughout history,” says Pancho Argüelles, the outgoing executive director. “We have a horrible history in this society of dehumanizing and marginalizing people with disabilities. And then there is the plight of immigrants more recently – particularly Latinos and Mexicans – who have experienced greater targeting by policies that criminalize them and create these everyday conditions of fear, stress, marginalization and oppression, all of which translate into actual suffering and pain for members of the Living Hope community.”

Alane Celeste-Villalvir is pursuing her PhD in Management, Policy and Community Health at the University of Texas. She volunteered with Living Hope for some years while doing some participatory research with them, and now serves as a trustee. “The more you learn about Living Hope and the journey of some of its members,” she says, “the more appalled you are with our healthcare system.”

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They have limited access to regular health insurance as undocumented persons. They have limited access to preventative care. “And even if you as a volunteer did have the resources,” says Alane, “you couldn’t get into the market and buy yourself insurance, which disproportionately puts you at risk for anything and everything. Our policy barriers set these human beings up on a life course that is headed toward more disability, more morbidity, more illness and premature death. No one comes into the country for this set of odds.”

Raise all this with Pancho, and rage at the layered callousness of injustice consumes his eyes. And then they soften again, the dialectic between anger and solidarity reproducing one more cycle.

“But from this constantly extreme experience,” he says slowly, deliberately, “life has found a way to create power, to create access to services.”

Accompaniment in Practice

At the core of Living Hope is a philosophy that has deep roots in Catholic social thought but really emanates its power in practice: acompañamiento – accompaniment. Pope Francis has popularized the term. These men and women live it.

“Accompaniment can never be about parachuting in to save ‘the other,’” wrote Pancho in a prescient essay back in 2019. “It is not about discovering an issue, problem, or community, and then colonizing, jumping to propose solutions that reduce the people to a problem without asking for their own definition of the problem or their ideas for solutions. It is rather always about sharing power, risks, and resources so that together we can heal, grow and thrive.”

It is very rare to see this kind of sensitive humility embodied in contexts of urgency today, let alone the skills needed to put the virtue into practice. It sounds more obvious than it is.

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“Accompaniment,” Pancho continues, “particularly with communities that have experienced the trauma of oppression and marginalization, is a process that starts by acknowledging the full humanity and dignity of the people we want to accompany. Recognizing (a.k.a. reorganizing our cognition) that there are systems of power, ideas, policies, beliefs, and attitudes that dehumanize some and privilege others is needed if we want to be able to join in the efforts of a community to transform its complex history and context.”

Accompaniment, in other words, demands the creation of the conditions for a dialogue to be sustained among equals. It’s about displacing oneself and one’s privilege to go meet people where they are. It’s a long obedience in the same direction, foregoing the gratification of quick-fix solutions to instead dive into the messy intentionality that effective solidarity requires.

And messy it can be. Pancho served Living Hope as its Executive Director for nine years, and for most of that time was the only person on staff not in a wheelchair. His relationship with Living Hope’s core team has been a long and ongoing journey of mutual rehumanization, healing and transformation.

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“My privilege is an epistemological obstacle,” he reflects with no small degree of mourning. “I walk into the office. They roll into it in their wheelchairs. I have a college education and can speak English; none of them do. I’ll go meet at a labor union with some of our leaders to talk about an alliance, and forget to ask if they have accessible bathrooms and a ramp to get in the building. I go to a webinar or a conference having asked my compañeros to be my colleagues, only to forget to demand that the venue hire interpreters or get the materials translated. In all these instances, members of my group show up, and they find they have no opportunity to participate. I find I am constantly trying to do this work for inclusion and transformation, only to reproduce exclusion.”

His definition of today’s moral bogeyman, “privilege,” is simple. “Tell me what you can forget about, and that speaks of your privilege.” He’s not hung up on it in an unproductively guilty way, but the experience of walking alongside his compañeros at Living Hope has forced him to become aware.

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Alejandro Rodriguez, Board Member and driver for donation collections

Some years ago, Pancho was scheduled to have a phone call with one of Living Hope’s staff members. The member was ten minutes late to the call and Pancho became frustrated, feeling like the member wasn’t taking their collaboration seriously. Finally he arrived on the call and said “I’m sorry I’m late. I fell from my chair. I’m alone in my house, so I had to crawl to the front of my house, open the door, and see if somebody walks by so that they can help me back in my chair.”

Pancho still chokes up here. “That was a profoundly kind of humbling moment, no?” he says. “Like, he fell from his chair, but he actually threw me off my horse. I just kind of sat in there for a moment, feeling thankful for his dignity, his perseverance, his commitment, and how he was casual about it, like, ‘Yeah. It’s okay. Let’s talk. Let’s have the conversation.’ And we had the conversation while he was on the floor and I was sitting in my chair.”

Here Pancho gets theological. “The mystery all the time is that we can get off our horse like St. Paul, but the horse is there every day and we get back on it every day. It truly takes a collective building of a community where we can mirror one another with love and also with truth. A person has to be soft. We can be hard and also loving as we strive to set limits on all the way our privilege is getting in the way and sneaking us back onto that high horse.”

He pauses again.

“Like all love stories,” he says at last, “I didn’t find them. I was found.”

The Beginnings of Disaster Justice

Living Hope testifies to what can be born after devastation. It is a collective of born-again leaders who, out of necessity, have drawn a map and stocked a toolkit for how to sustain hope and dignity when events beyond human control erase one’s prospects and all that came before. The drama is rarely a single arc. Death to self and to the past are not one-and-done deals. Each day in its acute precarity offers a new invitation. Each brush with the threat of deportation while serving others, each dread of a new infection caused by expired catheters and an inability to receive proper healthcare a chance to renew one’s faith that God will yet deliver and provide.

And La Esperanza Viva lives up to its name; joy is their daily bread. This community sings songs, shares sandwiches and respond to all who knock, taking pains to get to know each story and the most subtle of pain points.

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But can daily consistency and tailored genius catalyze a wave of systemic change? There is so much at stake. Disasters come with a huge bang, the shock of their largesse forcing urgent questions that yield solutions more akin to bandaids than the beginnings of wise structural reforms. Can a community-based organization of Living Hope’s tenderness penetrate the global fight around how to protect against climate change? Is it possible for staccato and legato to play in the same measure without shoving the necessary role of the other out?

We may have no choice but to test them and find out. As the world weathers another variant of Covid-19 and we all slowly realize the long if dramatic nature of our civilizational remaking, one key at the core of all that is being revealed is that those creating the terms of our shared future must be those most severely affected by all that is wrong in the present. Living Hope is well-poised to lead the way.

This story was originally published in January of 2022 at Bittersweet Monthly, in collaboration with Steve Jeter.

 

 
 
 

Love is a Neural Highway

March 16, 2021

What happens when the best of science is sandwiched by the best of love?

This is the question that Jacob’s Ladder school has been answering for 27 years as it has helped guide more than 4,000 children with neurobiological disorders toward hope and a future.

Amy O’Dell founded the school in Roswell, Georgia, as a way of making a better life for her youngest child. Jacob had been “born with such a sweet and beautiful spirit, but such a broken body and mind,” she says. Pervasive developmental delay was the diagnosis, a life sentence handed down with piles of documents at once condemning and disaggregated.

“I was told to adjust to the reality of the disability and to try to get pregnant again and hope for a ‘better child,’” she recalled. “It’s still really painful to remember those words.” Where medical experts declared little hope for any kind of change in her son, Amy saw a soul fighting to be seen.

“There was something in his eyes,” she says. “I couldn’t let it go.”

Amy had learned in the years before Jacob’s birth never to give up on a person deemed a lost cause by the accepted systems. She had worked in both adolescent and adult psychiatric care at Woodridge Hospital in Clayton, Georgia, using her degrees in activity therapy and counseling.

But home life was becoming a struggle, as her husband’s job was bringing in an annual income of just $3,000, and she, only able to work part time, wasn’t adding much more. They were borrowing more and more from Amy’s parents while credit card debt compounded. Meanwhile, Jacob’s needs were demanding more attention, and rural Appalachia didn’t have the infrastructure she felt he needed.

Things came to a head one day when Amy dropped off 15-month-old Jacob at a daycare center. As she paused outside the window, she watched as he struggled to hold himself upright. Each time Jacob turned his head upon being released by a caregiver, he toppled over.

Something twisted inside Amy. She watched as the workers moved on and Jacob ceased crying. Perhaps, she suspected, Jacob had decided that if his mother was leaving him, and the cry didn’t work, he was going to sit and be quiet until she came back. “He’d gone into a shell,” she says, shuddering at the memory.

She turned around and picked Jacob up then and there. Placing him on her hip and leaving, Amy drove to Woodridge and quit her job. She then dedicated herself to figuring out how to care for Jacob—pursuing certification in neurodevelopmental growth and intervention, studying programs around the country, working with Jacob eight hours a day, and reading all she could about brain injury and rehabilitation.

When Jacob was five, Amy and her husband decided they could no longer keep their marriage together, and with that finality, she moved with Jacob and his younger sister to Atlanta. Amy knew no one in the big city; she just sensed that hope for her son could be built here.

“I just remember waking up one day and saying, ‘No more. No more information. It’s not going to be information that changes my son’s life. It’s going to be me picking a path and then giving myself to it fully.’”

Photo by: Matthew Odom
Amy and her son Jacob
Love is a method

“Who was I to do a seminar on anything?” Amy says, chuckling at the memory of her early chutzpah as a stranger in Atlanta. “But I hung up some flyers, and people came.”

Amy had decided to offer free seminars at night for families who had kids with special needs. One of the first parents who attended was a wealthy real estate investor. After asking Amy if she could work with his daughter, he gave her an empty nail salon at a shopping center and helped her re-furnish the space. She continued offering the free seminars, but as more families participated, she decided to start charging for evaluations.

These evaluations were novel at the time, pairing an intensive interview with a quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG) brain scan. Using a noninvasive cap on the patient’s head, the scan maps the brain by measuring electrical activity in the form of brainwave patterns associated with impulsivity, cognitive inflexibility, anxiety, and other symptoms. Using this data, Amy could design custom programming.

Each case was unique. One family thought their son was blind and deaf, only to learn through Amy’s evaluation that he was dealing with a cortical deficiency, which the brain could be trained to overcome. Other kids would come in wheelchairs, unable to walk. Amy would focus heavily on mobility, encouraging at least six hours a day out of the wheelchair, and for many, a new mental map would form.

“In the early years,” Amy says, “no scientist thought I should be running something like this.” Amy didn’t have the right credentials or a PhD. She hadn’t prepped her hands-on work by spending years in a lab. “The common refrain from the experts was, ‘Wait, you?’

It was the 1990s, and the reigning neuroscience was cautious about the capacity of compromised brains to grow new pathways. Attachment theory—the idea that a secure relationship with a loving authority figure was the necessary basis for healthy development and eventual individuation—was just beginning to be explored as not only psychological in orientation, but possibly physical too.

Amy wanted to explore the possibility that love might not simply be a posture but could define an entire methodology. When paired with recent discoveries in neuroplasticity—the ability of brains to form and reorganize synaptic connections after a traumatic experience or physical injury—could love make the difference between surviving and thriving?

Parents found something hopeful in a leader who believed their children had the capacity to change. Word began spreading that Amy was a different kind of neurodevelopmental clinician, and soon a few children became dozens, and dozens became hundreds.

Amy’s fees became her salary, with a growing surplus that enabled her to hire her first three employees. Jacob’s Ladder hung up its sign in 1999.

When paired with recent discoveries in neuroplasticity, could love make the difference between surviving and thriving?

“We do two trainings for staff at Jacob’s Ladder,” Amy says. “Training in the hope, truth, and love methodology, and training in the science methodology. When you apply both, and you do so very consistently, the brain responds and stretches into new terrain.”

The name Jacob’s Ladder reflects this philosophy. While it honors the inspiration of her son, as well as Amy’s identification with the story of Jacob wrestling with God, there is also a notion of steps, of linkages built one on the next to heal neural connections in the brain. Amy doesn’t believe in dead ends, not for children, not for the human brain.

“Our ethos has always been, ‘Let’s just meet each child where he or she is at, right here, right now, and not worry about 20 years in the future,’” Amy says. “When the child gains that momentum, and covers that ground, [our task is] to be acutely aware of the next step.”

The interpersonal whole-brain approach

With a curriculum customized to each child and a 1.6-to-1 teacher-to-student ratio, Jacob’s Ladder welcomes those with conditions as varied as autism, Down syndrome, attention deficit disorder, anxiety disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, and bipolar disorders, among others.

“We promise families that their child will have a very specialized approach to their learning and developmental needs,” Amy says. “But each carefully designed day will be wrapped within the constants of heavy psychological safety, security, relationship, compassion, and unconditional positive regard, no matter how difficult someone’s behavior becomes.”

Kids arrive to teachers wearing “Choose Love” shirts and are ushered into one of three learning environments: the Ladder, which serves students needing intensive one-on-one care; The Hope School for students with emotional, behavioral, and relational challenges; or COMPASS, which works with young adults in need of job training and community-based instruction. Bolstering the three pods are various licensed specialists: occupational, physical, speech, and mental health counselors, as well as a consulting clinical psychologist who specializes in neurofeedback and brain mapping.

“We don’t waste a moment of a child’s day,” Amy says. “We take every opportunity we can to integrate each lesson with one another—from their language base to their relational skills to their conflict resolution skills to their self-regulation skills when stress hits them. It may look like this fast-moving river to the visitor, but it’s all very intentional.” Children are taught to be growers and nurturers, tending to gardens, raising goats. Outdoor play happens daily.

“I was skeptical at first,” says Rachel Pereira, “and then I saw the school.” Her son had been physically abused to the point of suffocation by a teacher in kindergarten. As he would lose self-restraint and increasingly lash out in violence as he grew, his elementary school years were, in Rachel’s words, “a nightmare.” She and her husband felt they had no choice but to confine him at home.

At their wits’ end when their son was ten, the couple was told about an “oasis of angels” not four miles from their house.

“You feel the love as soon as you walk on campus,” Rachel says of what is now a 13-acre property complete with butterflies, birds, walking paths, and gardens. “My son wanted to be a normal kid, but he simply couldn’t. Amy told me that Jacob’s Ladder was never going to give up on him, and I decided to believe her.”

After a first few tough months, Rachel’s son ceased having fits and breakouts. Amy’s own son Jacob—then 26 and a teacher at the school—built a trusted bond with him. “It’s a miracle,” Rachel says. “The school is a godsend.”

An invisible yet fierce circle of norms protects the Jacob’s Ladder experience. Phones and iPads are nowhere to be seen. Staff work to leave behind their life stresses on their commutes in.

“We expect our staff to learn what it means to be a vessel and pour into another human being, whatever the self-sacrifice,” Amy says. “We may not hit it every day all day, but just trying to do it daily makes a difference.”

Students are respected as those who pick up on the smallest signals of mental presence or absence. Regardless of neural condition, Amy believes, human beings intuitively know when they are treasured and when they are a burden.

“In the early years,” Amy says, “when I was working with Jacob, it quickly became clear that as much as I gave of my own thought and energy to the moment, that’s the amount he received. If I was trying to teach him to read the alphabet, he would learn the letters if I was 100 percent with him. But if I got distracted and would start thinking about my grocery shopping list … I could be physically right there, turned towards him, same everything on the outside, but he would falter.”

The school’s success with each student depends on many factors: the severity of the child’s condition, the child’s age, and the family’s degree of support toward the efforts. For some parents, a child just learning to use a hand that couldn’t be used before could be a giant gift of hope.

“When you undertake this work diligently, consistently, and with integrity, you will always see growth and change,” Amy says. “It could be slow and in very small ways for one child, and quick and dramatic for another.

Photo by: Matthew Odom
Amy O’Dell and Ross Mason
The power of naming

Chris Hatcher and his wife had tried everything for their son: public school, private school, therapeutic programs, homeschooling. The boy had also experienced trauma early in his elementary education, and he now dealt with ADHD, emotional dysregulation issues, dyslexia, and more. He was breaking pencils, dumping desks over, threatening other students, and in one fourth-grade year was restrained 27 times.

A consulting firm mentioned The Hope School at Jacob’s Ladder. Chris looked at the website and read, “kids with complex problems … conduct disorder … high-functioning autism …” “It described our kid,” Chris says. He took the 11-year-old in for an assessment.

“From the brain scan, we learned that the fear center was all lit up in his brain, shutting down the speech center,” Chris says. “We learned that when he’s under a lot of stress, he goes quiet and can’t communicate.” Rife fear, it turns out, was drowning out the healthy development of other neural pathways.

This identification was a comfort all on its own. “Then Amy and her colleagues went through a very thorough set of questions to find out who at the school would be the right people for [him], customizing a program specifically to him,” Chris says. They learned that he liked to work with his hands, so they assigned him to help with maintenance on campus.

Two years after entering the program at a first-grade reading level, he’s catapulted to a seventh-grade level. He’s also in better control of his emotions when stresses occur. “We have seen his toolbox grow greatly for how he can deal with things,” Chris says. “Particularly the emotional dysregulation—the stuff that used to be explosive is just not there anymore.”

“I think other schools had an understanding of what we were going through,” Chris says, “but they still had their program, their way of doing things. And the one thing we always came back to was that they couldn’t handle the behavior. Jacob’s Ladder can handle the behavior.” All staff who work with kids with severe track records are trained and certified in crisis intervention, and the school keeps strict safety protocols.

But equally noteworthy? “Amy always tells us, ‘You’re the parents, you understand your child better than anyone,’” Chris says. “That is something that you rarely hear.”

Can love scale?

As success stories have multiplied and Amy’s public credibility has grown, so has demand from parents outside Atlanta to take the methodology global. As happened to many, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Amy to experiment with different ways of packaging the methodology for national—even international—use.

But can something so high-touch and communal in nature go global without losing its distinctive magic?

One figure in the Atlanta health tech scene thinks so.

Ross Mason has been a serial entrepreneur, a civic leader, and a triathlete. In 2007, he had a vision to make Atlanta the Silicon Valley of health, to inject market excellence and incentives into a system he thought was too self-satisfied. He founded HINRI (the High Impact Network of Responsible Innovators), a venture philanthropy group that “mirrors how angel investors help entrepreneurs build companies that can scale effectively and reduce risk for investors and donors,” according to its website.

Around this time, Ross and Amy met up for lunch. They had gone to Sunday school together while growing up in Madison, Georgia. Ross found in Amy exactly the sort of social entrepreneur HINRI existed to help. The two of them pledged to collaborate when, just weeks later, Ross’s life took a dramatic turn.

He was biking his normal training route when a bee snuck inside his helmet. As he tried to swat it out, he swerved sharply. He crashed, breaking his neck and enduring a C6 spinal cord injury.

Amy visited Ross many times in the hospital, praying with him and accompanying him through terrain she knew from her own journey. Their friendship blossomed, and in 2010, Ross began to approach foundations to launch the first capital campaign for Jacob’s Ladder. He put together a formal board of directors that he would chair.

Ross’s experience convinced him that health care experts exclude all but a narrow range of credentials tied to industry and prestige. Amy, by contrast, embodies qualities Ross believes could turn American health care around: personalism, holistic paradigms, praxis before theory,
no shortcuts.

“Amy is focused on ‘What does this child need?’ Not, ‘How do you fit into the research paper that I just wrote?’” Ross says. “She’s the kindest person you’ll ever meet, but she threatens the status quo.”

Ross is challenging Amy to put her methodology online and make it open source. He wants to turn the center in Roswell into “a mothership training center”—like a demonstration city—which would spawn replicas in Geneva, Jerusalem, San Francisco, and elsewhere. He wants, in short, to change the way the world treats human potential.


Eternity begins in the proximate

“As truth is revealed in the day-to-day moments of life,” Amy says, “and in the interchanges and relationships that surround me, I’m always awestruck at how the grace of God works.”

This attitude is not for lack of suffering.

“One of the greatest gifts about having Jacob was that it completely crushed the illusion that I have control in my life. … I was completely brought to my knees in the midst of that fear to see that, for me and my life personally, it was an opening to knowing there is a power much greater than myself that I can rely on. So rather than seeing my fear, I put the fear into action, and the action is called love.”

That love has worked itself out through steps, one at a time, in brains, hearts, and households. “Families will come in so despairing,” Amy says, “and by the time they leave, they are just so thankful that someone is believing in their child.” She coaches parents in principles of truth-telling, choosing joy, focusing on a child’s strengths, and, to borrow from Eugene Peterson, a long obedience in the same direction.

“This is the story God gave me,” Amy says. “He authored it, and I’ve done my best to walk it out.”

This story was originally published in the April 2021 issue of Christianity Today.

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