“We serve some of the most frail and fragile people in the whole world,” says Sue Hockensmith, co-founder of Pony Bird Inc., a care provider for non-ambulatory individuals with profound mental and physical disabilities.
Hockensmith, who exudes both compassion and competence, has helped hundreds of disabled people and their families. But 40 years ago, she was a college student, a new wife—and a frightened mother whose infant son, Philip, was terribly sick.
The child was eventually diagnosed with cytomegalia, a virus that would render him unable to ever walk, talk, see or hear. Doctors encouraged Hockensmith and her husband, Dana, to place Philip in a specialized facility, and wanting him to have the best care possible, they reluctantly agreed.
The young couple completed school and began their careers—she as a teacher, he as a lawyer—but they missed their son terribly. And when a job offer moved them 200 miles away from him, the pain became unbearable. “It felt as though we’d lost a child,” Hockensmith recalls.
With the energy and audacity of youth, the Hockensmiths made it their mission to found a center in their community for people like Philip, who needed more care and love than even the most dedicated parents could provide.
The place they envisioned would be warm and welcoming, not “stilted and sterile.” Residents would be surrounded by music and bright colors, have their hair styled and enjoy their favorite foods. Neither they nor the staff would wear uniforms, and every resident would be respected for their individuality. It would be, in every sense of the word, a home.
With the support of the Jefferson County Association for Retarded Citizens, the Hockensmiths raised $25,000 through grassroots fundraising, won a $32,000 federal grant and wangled 5 acres of donated land in Mapaville, Mo. The facility, which opened in 1977, was named the Pony Bird Home after a children’s book about a little boy who rides a flying horse to magical journeys around the world. Five-year-old Philip made the journey back home to his parents, and was its first resident.
Thirty-five years and several expansions later, Pony Bird now provides 24-hour care for 60 children and adults who are profoundly or severely disabled. In addition to those permanent residents, it also offers a day program for developmentally disabled adults.
Participants are involved therapeutic activities aimed at achieving such goals as increased independence, enhanced physical capabilities and improved communication skills. Respite services also are available for caregivers, and can be scheduled for just several hours or for as long as two weeks.
The staff-to-resident ratio of 1-to-3 ensures highly personalized care. And a philosophy of community integration means residents can socialize, participate, work and volunteer, thereby increasing their sense of self worth. Pony Bird is the St. Louis region’s only not-for-profit organization to support non-ambulatory and significantly disabled individuals of all ages.
“We may have had the idea and brought it to life with a group of really wonderful people, but it’s the staff that really keeps Pony Bird alive,” says Hockensmith, adding that a number of employees and volunteers have been with Pony Bird since its earliest days. “They truly become like family members for the residents, and for us, too. Several of them served as Philip’s pallbearers.”
Philip Hockensmith died in 2001 from pneumonia at the age of 29. But his parents and two sisters knew that Pony Bird would keep his legacy alive. Dana and Sue Hockensmith continue to serve on the board of directors, and their daughter, Laura, looks forward to following in their footsteps.
“It breaks my heart that we never were able to truly know Philip,” says Hockensmith. “But even though he never realized it, he totally changed the lives of so, so many people.”
Volunteer Spotlight: Deanna Patek
Deanna Patek of Festus, Mo., baked her first cake when she was 10 years old. Today, she’s known around her community as ‘The Dessert Lady’ for the tasty treats she can be counted on to create for any party, fundraiser, or just because. “It’s just something I love to do,” she says. “And it just tickles me that other people love what I make.”
Among the lucky ones who get to enjoy Patek’s Snickers pie, carrot cake and other signature sweets are the residents of Pony Bird. Patek’s daughter, Mary, was one of the first children welcomed to the facility.
Mary was afflicted with cerebral palsy, and while Patek and her husband, Ed, were determined to keep her at home and raise her with her two siblings, Patek says that Pony Bird was “just a lifesaver” and enrolled her daughter in the center’s day program.
The Pateks lived only a short distance from Pony Bird, making it easy for them to be frequent visitors. But many of the residents either didn’t have family close by or were wards of the state. So Patek decided to bake a personalized cake for each one’s birthday.
Later, after bringing goodies to a staff appreciation day event, Patek was asked to lend her culinary skills to Pony Bird fundraisers. “One of my carrot cakes just went for $80,” she boasts. “And, oh Lord, I couldn’t tell you how many hundreds of carrot cakes I’ve made over the years!”
But it’s been a labor of love. “I just wanted to help out any way I could,” says Patek. “Pony Bird was a miracle. We were so blessed to be able to keep Mary at home, but it was such a comfort to know that if anything ever happened to us, there would always be a place for her there. We never had to worry because she would always be safe and loved at Pony Bird.”
Mary died in 2005, but her mother remains active with the organization. “Mary wouldn’t have liked it if I stopped coming,” Patek insists. “If she could’ve talked, I know she would have told me to keep helping out, to keep visiting her friends who are still there.”
And so she does. “I just visit with them, talk to them. That one-on-one special attention—it’s important, you can tell it makes them feel good.” And, of course, she can still be counted on to provide the centerpiece of every birthday celebration—the cake. “Oh, I’ll be baking those just as long as I can.”