Nancy Vernon touched a photo of herself holding son Drew as a baby, her fingers rubbing it lightly as if to free a memory.
Nancy and husband Craig Vernon had two sons, Dylan and Drew. Dylan was a normal, healthy boy. Drew, born two years later, was not – he was deaf and legally blind, with a seizure disorder that worsened as he grew.
“I was just a mom with two babies,” she said. “I knew nothing about special education for the deaf and blind. I trusted the schools, and I found out they knew nothing about it either.
“I became an advocate for my son. I want to reach other young mothers, tell them to be advocates, too.”
First in Aberdeen, then Spanaway, the Vernons let Drew try public school. Neither district had curriculum for the deaf and blind, nor did many other schools in the state.
Nancy Vernon went back to college in the hope of finding the answers.
“I got my bachelor’s degree, then my master’s in education curriculum,” she said. “I’m a year into my Ph.D. in organization leadership in higher ed.”
The Vernons sued the Aberdeen School District when it wouldn’t let Drew transfer to a school in Thurston County where teacher Sue Cozza worked with the deaf and blind.
The case settled out of court for $75,000, of which $40,000 was placed in a trust for Drew, accessible when he turned 21, Nancy said.
The young man wouldn’t live to claim it.
When Drew was kindergarten age, his family moved to Spanaway, and he began school there.
“I filed a lawsuit when he came home with both arms bruised. He was in an inappropriate environment – they weren’t set up to work with someone who was deaf and blind,” she said. “They wouldn’t let him eat in the cafeteria because, they said, other children were afraid of him.
“By seventh grade, he was a big boy, and they had him housed with preschool kids. I took him out of school there in 2008 and he never went back,” she said.
Neither the Aberdeen nor Bethel School District would comment on Drew Vernon or the family’s lawsuit.
A Bethel spokeswoman said there were still issues pending.
Nancy said her suit was dismissed, but that Bethel agreed to pay $50,000 a year for Drew’s continuing education, beginning in 2008. That became $120,000 a year when Nancy hired Cozza to tutor Drew three years ago, she said.
“The first few months, the only goal was communication,” Cozza said. “Until you can communicate, you can’t begin to teach.”
Told by a psychiatrist that Drew would be better served learning in an environment away from home, the Vernons bought a two-story house in Tacoma and turned it into “Drew’s Place.”
Every room but the kitchen was converted to a colorful classroom.
There, Drew seemed to blossom.
“Cognitively, he was not impaired. Drew got it. He was bright, he understood concepts,” Cozza said. “Once he felt safe, his learning curve was perpendicular – there was just so much in there with him.”
Washington Superintendent of Instruction Randy Dorn was a visitor to “Drew’s Place.”
“From the time I met Drew three years ago, I was impressed with the progress he had made,” Dorn said, through a spokeswoman.
Nancy Vernon tried to expand Drew’s school into the community. He worked at a Tacoma thrift store, stocking shelves. He learned how to ride a horse when a woman volunteered to lead him. He even earned a high school letter in cross-country running.
“My husband and I would take turns at his races, walking ahead of him with Drew holding on to a rope,” Nancy said.
“His Bethel teammates were wonderful. He’d always finish last, but they’d wait and come back to him, crossing the line with him and high-fiving.”
The seizure disorder that Drew lived with, known as Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, never let up. He developed a sign for “seizure” – tapping his forehead with all four fingers and his thumb. Most were silent seizures.
Occasionally, there was a really big one, a grand mal seizure.
“Drew could feel them coming ahead of time and wouldn’t eat, so he didn’t usually throw up,” Nancy said.
One cool, overcast day last December, however, after taking a long walk with his family, Drew ate most of a pizza. That evening, after crawling into a hot tub and high-fiving older brother Dylan, Drew had a seizure, vomited and asphyxiated.
He died on Christmas Day, when the family shut off life support.
Drew Vernon was 18.
Now, Nancy Vernon and Sue Cozza want to use “Drew’s Place” – and everything in it – to work with teachers on creating effective classroom curriculum for deaf and blind students. They’re in contact with the Bethel School District.
Neither Drew’s mother nor his tutor will ever forget their time with him.
“He had a great life, and he lived,” Nancy said. “Most people with his syndrome die before they’re 10. He loved people, loved his family, his dogs ”
Sue remembers the look on Drew’s face when he grasped a concept she was trying to teach him.
“One thing Drew taught me, your dreams can come true,” she said.
“That doesn’t mean they’ll last.”Larry LaRue: (253) 597-8638