NEW TAMPA — Members of the Wharton High School band are often asked the same question by students from other schools — "Dude, who's that disabled one in your band?" — but they still have to think about the answer. Marimba player Sarah Potts looks around for a moment. "We have no idea who you're talking about," she says. The girl in the wheelchair, the one who gets up slowly to play the vibraphone during games, is sophomore Valerie Baker. She was born with a condition that affects her stamina and mobility, causing her to use a wheelchair to get around. But she has blended so seamlessly into high school life, even her friends forget sometimes that she has a disability.
The 16-year-old zips around school, hauling books and friends who hop onto the back of the chair for a ride to class. During band practice, she lugs the big equipment with ease. Her best friends are in the band and she spends a lot of time at practice and at games.
"At first, everyone who meets her is really nice to her and we're really careful about what we say when we talk to her," Sarah, 17, said. "But when we get to know her, we realize that she's just like everybody else."
Valerie's parents, Joe and Patty Baker, never imagined years ago that she would be a typical teenager, playing in her high school band.
They first sensed something was wrong during the pregnancy when the baby didn't kick much. Doctors made the diagnosis after Valerie was born. She had low muscle tone and her joints were improperly formed. The condition, arthrogryposis, afflicts one in every 30,000 births and varies in severity. Valerie, who still has motor, mobility and stability issues, continues to improve with therapy.
The first several years of her life, Valerie underwent intense physical, occupational and speech therapy as well as five surgeries. She was 4 before she walked; around 2 1/2 before she uttered her first words.
When she got to Hunter's Green Elementary School, she fell in love with music and her music teacher. The Bakers gave her piano lessons and she dabbled in the percussion instruments as well, all while continuing her therapy. When she decided to try out for Wharton's band last year, her family, including older brother Phillip, were all for it, albeit a little nervous.
"You just didn't know how much she would be able to do," Patty Baker said. "But I just saw the determination on her face and thought, 'This kid is going to be whoever she wants to be and do whatever she wants to do.' "
Sarah recalls tryouts, when all of the kids looked at each other quizzically.
"We were kind of confused," Sarah said. "How was she going to hold her mallets? Then she showed us what she could do. She is one of the better players in the whole front line."
Pretty soon, Valerie was one of them. Her friends didn't treat her any differently, which meant that she got teased, too.
Instead of jokingly telling her to go away, they tell her to "just roll over there" and they giggle.
When they want to get rid of someone who annoys them, they tell her to "run him over" and the girls all laugh.
They go to the movies, to the mall and they bowl. She uses a contraption that helps her roll the ball and she gets a strike almost every time.
"The kids just readily accepted her and have been so helpful," her mother said. "They are just phenomenal."
Band director Jason Allgair and the students have the process down: For away games, Valerie brings along her manual wheelchair because it's easily collapsible. She uses the electric one for home games. They wheel her to the field and position her with her bandmates. When it's her turn to play, she gets up and walks over to her instrument. Valerie, who can stand for limited amounts of time, uses ankle and foot orthotics for additional strength.
Sometimes she feels different from the others, Valerie said, but she has found a way to move past it.
"I just put my disability aside and I'm able to have a conversation with new people," she said.
Watching their little girl from the sidelines — the one who struggled as a baby to walk and talk — makes the Bakers emotional.
"We had no idea that she would ever do anything like this," Patty Baker said. "It just makes us so happy to see her out there having such a good time and doing so well."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)269-5312 or [email protected]