Hernando County woman's new maturity at Arc Nature Coast home justifies gratitude

Casey Kanary, 54, left, seen here with her mom, Kathleen Sharick, has matured dramatically since moving into an Arc Nature Coast home last year.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Casey Kanary, 54, left, seen here with her mom, Kathleen Sharick, has matured dramatically since moving into an Arc Nature Coast home last year.

When she isn't working at Arc Nature Coast's Community Cafe on U.S. 19, and when she isn't bowling, line dancing or winning Special Olympics swimming races, Casey Kanary volunteers with Meals on Wheels.

"We take food to people who can't even get out of their houses,'' said Kanary, 54, in the bedroom of an Arc group home in Spring Hill.

The irony is that for most of her life, Kanary rarely left home herself. When she did, she was likely to be sitting in a wheelchair, as her mother worked nights as a deputy tax assessor for the city of Chicago under the original Mayor Richard Daley. Or riding along as her mother made fundraising calls around Illinois for the Democratic Party. Or accompanying her mom every time she went to the post office or the supermarket.

"She got dragged around all her life,'' said her mother, Kathleen Sharick, 73.

The big change for Kanary came three years ago, when she began working at the Arc cafe, a westside meeting place for Arc customers, and spending her days doing volunteer work.

She grew up more when she moved into an Arc group home last year. And since Sept. 1 of this year, when she transferred into a new Arc house that offered more independence — where the Arc staffer is a roommate rather than a caretaker and where Kanary does most of her own cleaning and shopping — "it's been a metamorphosis … a liberation,'' Sharick said.

"She became an adult, and she became an adult who was an achiever and who was proud of her achievement.''

Maybe you don't want to hear her story. Maybe you're tired of being told about the blessings you owe the moral universe or count every Thanksgiving Day. "The festival of mandatory gratitude,'' a New York Times writer called it this week.

Still, if you can squeeze it in, you might want to set aside a moment to appreciate how much basic freedoms and opportunities mean to you and your family. Because without them, Sharick said, her daughter's life was so "mundane that mundane doesn't even begin to describe how miserable it was.''

Kanary was born healthy. But, as a 6-month-old baby, she got an overdose of anaesthetic during an operation to repair her damaged colon. To help her recover from the brain damage and paralysis caused by the overdose, she was placed in an oxygen tent, which left her blind.

She recovered her sight and movement as a toddler and as a girl attended a special school where she learned skills that doctors had said were beyond her: tying her shoes, telling time, signing her name.

"Six to 9 were her ages of conquest,'' her mother said.

But then she stalled. Usually you hear about the superior social services in Northern states. But Sharick said none of the programs in Chicago rivaled Arc.

"Up there, they just warehoused people,'' she said.

And, in case you think the programs in Florida are too lavishly funded, Sharick and Kanary's stepfather, Bob, lived in Plant City from 1974 to 1999 with access to no other day program than one at a local church. All Kanary learned to do there was smoke, a habit she has since broken.

And after the family moved to Brookridge, Kanary spent seven years on the Arc waiting list while the family, as they had all her life, lived with the side effects of her boredom and frustration.

"She was a very negative person … very demanding and very impatient,'' Sharick said. "Whatever she wanted, she wanted now. Lunch had to be at 12 on the dot. The snacks had to be just so. She'd holler at you to come in and fix her pillow; holler at you to do this, do that.''

Then, in 2006, Arc found a place for Kanary to clean and to make coffee at the cafe. That "turned a light on, and that light just keeps on getting brighter and brighter, and pretty soon we're all going to have to wear sunglasses,'' Sharick said.

The sour attitude is long gone now. Kanary showed off her packed monthly work and activity schedule, which included time blocked off for volunteering at an animal shelter and at the Jericho Road Ministries thrift store.

She showed off a row of ribbons she has won at swim meets and her gold medal she claimed at the Special Olympics state aquatic championship in Vero Beach in October.

"That was my birthday present to my mother,'' Kanary said. "She cried she was so happy.''

She pointed to a picture of her stepfather. "He's a sweetheart," she said.

She's delighted with her roommates — one Arc staffer and two customers — and proud of the animal theme she and her mother chose for her room, with a leopard-print throw over the easy chair and a ceramic elephant on the night stand and a serious-looking, nearly life-size stuffed tiger on the bed.

"The daddy tiger,'' Kanary calls it.

She keeps the room clean herself, and now coaches her mother when they go shopping, telling her that the whole wheat macaroni is the healthiest choice and that she can save a lot of money buying generic cream cheese.

She loads the car, with the heavy bags on the bottom and the lighter ones on top, her mother said, "and she says, 'Ma, you're not supposed to just pile and cram the way you always do.' ''

The thought of what would happen to her daughter after she died — that she might once again be warehoused — used to give Sharick ulcers. She's relieved now that her daughter, given the chance by Arc, has learned how to take care of herself.

They are also — and you can bet nobody's forcing them to feel this way — extremely grateful.

Hernando County woman's new maturity at Arc Nature Coast home justifies gratitude 11/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 6:04pm]

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