Against All Odds
As a verb, pluck is defined as playing an instrument by sounding the strings with a finger or pick. As a noun, it means a courageous readiness to fight or continue against steep odds.
It’s as if Mr. Webster knew Vicki Simmons.
Despite losing most of her sight to a rare optic malady at age 12, Simmons went on to a long career as a multi-instrumentalist with the New Coon Creek Girls, a popular bluegrass music group founded by Renfro Valley founder John Lair in 1979.
And when a stroke almost 30 years later diminished her ability to formulate her thoughts and speak clearly, Simmons approached her newest hardship with the same pluck that propelled her successful music career.
Today, she is the longest-serving employee of EKU’s Greenhouse, and a beloved one at that.
What happened along the way is a testimony to Simmons’ never-give-up mindset and desire to work, and a university’s willingness to just say “yes,” with a few simple accommodations.
While undergoing speech therapy at EKU after the stroke, Simmons indicated that her primary goal was to return to work. Vocational Rehab was engaged to assist her once she had regained a level of independence.
Learning that Simmons has earned a degree in agriculture from EKU in 1977, her counselor approached David Williams, now director of facilities services at the University. A part-time position was approved at the greenhouse in 2010, and over time Simmons worked more and more hours, eventually becoming a part-time benefited employee.
“From the beginning, Mr. Williams sought to understand Vicki’s abilities rather than her challenges,” said Dr. Tamara Cranfill, associate professor of communication disorders at EKU. “He asked for an explanation of what she could do, how aphasia impacted her abilities, and what conditions would be needed to support her. All that was required were explanations that her language was impeded, not her intellect. Vicki began to be treated like every other greenhouse employee.”
In recognition of his efforts, Williams recently received a Certificate of Appreciation from the Kentucky Speech and Hearing Association.
“Research supports that individuals with aphasia frequently do not return to regular employment,” Cranfill noted. “Multiple factors impact this – severity of aphasia, overall health, co-existing conditions that limit motor ability. But a primary reason is lack of employer or community support. Perhaps they wonder if individuals with aphasia are healthy enough to sustain a regular work week.
Mr. Williams’ willingness to say ‘yes’ that first time has enabled Vicki to not only become more independent, but has resulted in functional improvement in her communication skills,” Cranfill added. “It has also permitted the greater EKU community to see the success capable for an individual with aphasia. He recognized that despite Vicki’s limitations in communication and vision, she is a valuable, productive employee. He did not let her be defined by her limitations, but by her abilities.”
Simmons is the second of four generations in her family to attend EKU. Her granddaughter is Meghan Smith, the current sophomore marketing major who recently captured the top prize in an episode of the Food Network’s “Cake Wars.”