Karen LaGraff lives every day under the influence of gratitude.
LaGraff's 37-year-old son, Jordan, lives in an Orange Grove group home on Mountain Creek Road. LaGraff's gratitude is generally focused on Orange Grove Center, a nonprofit that serves 1,200 individuals with disabilities and special needs in the Chattanooga area and beyond.
But more specifically, her gratitude is for a woman named Rishaunda Smiley, the house manager at Jordan's group home.
Interestingly, Smiley, like Jordan, is also 37 years old and has a twin sister with special needs. Also like Jordan, Smiley's sister is non-verbal, and Smiley grew up developing a sixth sense for her sister's needs and emotions.
"Rishaunda learned patience, kindness, and nurturing at home and this provided the inspiration for her career choice," LaGraff wrote in an email to the Times Free Press.
LaGraff shared a quote about people like her son, who has been part of the Orange Grove residential system since he was 14 years old. The quote reads: "Non-verbal doesn't mean I have nothing to say, it means that you will need to listen to me with more than your ears."
Smiley exemplifies those skills. She said residents like Jordan communicate with smiles, even eyebrow inflections. She says she can, for example, tell if Jordan is feeling good — or not — just by reading his facial expressions.
"I can really tell when [non-verbal residents] are not feeling good or something is wrong, when they need something," Smiley said. "I don't know if it's a bond with them, or what."
She also knows how to coax them to be their best selves. For example, Smiley pointed out that Jordan knows how to operate a washing machine, buckle his seat belt and even ring the doorbell — skills that a casual observer might not assume he could do.
Orange Grove has 65 residences across the area serving individuals with special needs. About 80 of the residents are in so-called intermediate care facilities — houses geared to helping people like Jordan who need help with at least some activities of daily living such as feeding themselves or bathing.
Such houses need staff members like Smiley who have deep wells of empathy and patience. It's a combination that's increasingly hard to find in the workforce.
That's what makes LaGraff's gratitude so genuine. She knows how fortunate she is to have someone like Smiley looking after her son.
"Rishaunda is one of many unrecognized caregivers that deserve to be commended," she said. "They are often the people who are virtually keeping those with severe disabilities alive; feeding, bathing, dressing, brushing teeth, and taking them to their doctor appointments. There are not many jobs more important than those in the care giving field.
"She exemplifies what every parent would want for their child living outside their own home."
For her part, Smiley said she had genuine affection for her residents. Group home work is hard but rewarding, she said.
"There's something about coming here and seeing a smile on their faces and knowing that they're happy that makes me happy," Smiley said. "I'm basically their mom away from their mom."
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645.