One in six children in the United States will have a developmental delay or disability which includes Down syndrome. Matthew Hearn is one of these children. He has spent his life overcoming his disability, social stigma and civil rights challenges.
Matthew’s story began with a phone call. His parents, Melody and Dannie Hearn, had waited and prayed seven years for a child. One day, their church pastor phoned, asking if they were yet interested in adopting a child. He had just received a phone call from an older mother-to-be who was unwed and wished to place her child in a good Christian home. Not long afterward, Melody stood in the delivery room at Martin North, watching her son Matthew being born into the world. Immediately doctors saw that the baby was in distress; three days later, Matthew was rushed to St. Mary’s Hospital in West Palm Beach to receive neonatal care, genetic testing confirming Down syndrome, and direction toward early intervention.
Baby Matthew lost weight because of his inability to thrive and required specialized attention. He stayed a month and had surgery prior to discharge.
Further physical challenges have followed:
At age 10 Matthew had a sleep study performed; results found him to be at high risk for SIDS because he had severe apnea. Another surgery followed—his tonsils and adenoids were removed.
By age 14 Matthew’s shallow breathing caused his heart rate to drop in the night. He had a heart study and follow-up surgery to open up space in his throat for better breathing. Matthew is still having physical issues and may need a pacemaker in the future. At night, a nurse stays by Matthew’s side.
From infancy on, Matthew received many types of therapies which included speech and oral motor exercises as well as physical and occupational therapy. These helps increased his ability to thrive. Matthew still attends speech therapy where he works on his rate of speech, which at times is too fast.
The typical age a baby begins to walk is around one year old. Matthew walked at 22 months.
As a young child, Melody Hearn took her son to swim lessons. The instructor asked her, “What do you want me to do with him?” Melody received the same type of reaction after enrolling Matthew in gymnastics. There is a stigma within our society that children with Down syndrome cannot learn, but that is not true. It may take a special instructor. It may take more time, but these children can and will learn to swim as Matthew did at age 5.
Today, Matthew Hearn is a champion sportsman in Special Olympics. He loves sports!
At age 17 1/2, Matthew has become a light in the modern world. He has accomplished what some people without a disability do not do. A sophomore at Port St. Lucie High School, Matthew is a member of the swim team, the JROTC, and a member of the drama class. He will participate in Port St. Lucie High School’s upcoming production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.
In 2020, Matthew Hearn will graduate with a standard diploma on a merit status.
Matthew is also learning pre-employment skills. He has worked at Longhorn and is currently employed at Ric’s Garden World in Fort Pierce, where he is paid. Matthew enjoys working outdoors. These jobs are significant. It is difficult for people with disabilities like Matthew’s to find such work.
Though Matthew Hearn lives his life overcoming challenges which to others would be ordinary milestones, inside he is just like other young men. His desires to succeed and be loved and recognized are no different.
Now nearing age 18, Matthew lives everyday with joy. He loves to crack up and be the funny guy. A teen, he hangs out with friends shooting pool, goes to Port St. Lucie High School Homecoming dances, sings in the Friends’ Chorus, and attends Youth Group at Morningside Church. Interaction with others is very important in Matthew’s life. It helps him develop socially. More importantly, Matthew is accepted by his peers.
Matthew loves to eat fast food and begs his mom, Melody, every day to take him out to eat at Wendy’s. (He’s learned how to make himself a sandwich at home instead. “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” Mom says.)
At home, Matthew has chores. He mows and weed-eats the year-round Florida lawn on Saturdays.
In the past, Matthew, like other teens has had to deal with self-control—facing difficult situations instead of running away. Today, he faces his problems.
Matthew is a Christian. He believes in God and prays. He sings during worship at his church and often thinks of others. He is well known for spreading his faith to others in his sphere of influence. His heart is pure, with no malice, no evil intent, no taking advantage of others. A heart like his is rare.
Matthew is working toward independence and wants it, just as all other young people do. His goal is to go to college and become a construction worker.
Now he can.
Indian River State College will launch the Project STAGE program, beginning January 2018 for students with intellectual disabilities aged 18 and older with a diploma. This will be a standard program with students attending regular classes; the goal focuses on certification for gainful employment.
Mrs. Hearn urges parents and society not to “believe the myths.” Children with disabilities grow up to become adults who can work in the community. It hasn’t been easy, but Matthew Hearn has worked hard to overcome obstacles of every kind and find his place in society.
Though Melody and Dannie Hearn are not alone in the adoption and rearing of a child with Down syndrome, they are unusual. Because of their son’s presence, they have continued on in a life of faith, “praying a whole lot more,” Dannie adds.
Melody Hearn has become a State of Florida leader in advocating for the civil rights of children with developmental disabilities. She sits on the Family Care Council Board and is a past State of Florida, Governor-appointed chairperson for Family Care Council. Melody Hearn travels, hosts, and educates other parents of children with disabilities. She also helps others make their own stories known. In government meetings, Melody advocates for individuals with disabilities—to improve their quality of life. Advocacy in her district on the Treasure Coast (Martin, St. Lucie, Okeechobee and Indian River counties) is yet young but has been steadily growing during the last 15 years.
Project Search is a high school transition program that provides on the job training and experience to students with disabilities. Melody Hearn says, “A few years ago, strong advocates brought Project Search to the Treasure Coast in Martin County. We have been advocating for St. Lucie County to do the same.” Project Search has limited availability, but for those who participate, their opportunity for employment is significantly increased.
In July 2014, Florida’s Employment First Initiative went into effect. Issued by Governor Rick Scott, he “reaffirmed his commitment to employment as ‘the most direct and cost-effective means in helping an individual achieve independence and self-fulfillment, which should be the primary objective of public assistance programs wherever possible.’”
Mrs. Hearn adds, “We need more to fill the needs of young people with Intellectual Disabilities if we are going to meet the Governor’s Employ Me First Initiative.”
Melody Hearn believes there is much more to be accomplished and this is only the beginning of a grass roots civil rights movement.
New national government rulings to come in line with (AHCA) Agency for Health Care Administration will be mandated by March 2019 for full inclusion for people with disabilities in the community and that they not be segregated or forced into institutional settings.
Mrs. Hearn’s, closing words, “The walls are coming down.”
How we treat others, especially citizens with disabilities, who are often our children, is a reflection of what we are. It takes courage to stand up and speak out as Melody Hearn does. And it has taken courage for Matthew Hearn to be that individual who is not afraid to stand up though he is different.
The grass roots movement of advocacy is changing the destiny of many in the United States; whether they are children or adults, those with disabilities are loved, wanted and finally viewed as a most necessary part of society.
Matthew Hearn, a young man whose mother often speaks for him, can often be found at the altar of his church speaking to God for others.
© 2018 "Hometown Heroes" Kelly Jadon