Catherine’s Story

Some call it fate, others luck, even coincidence—I call it a miracle; the way the people in our lives, even those we encounter in what seem to be insignificant moments, can come back to have such a profoundly unexpected, even life-changing effect on us.
Brent Woodall was one of the first people I met on the campus of UC Berkeley in 1990 as a new
student and fellow athlete. A “gentle giant,” Brent was liked and admired by all who knew him. Connected through similar social circles and weeknights spent in Athletic Study Hall, this college acquaintance of mine would turn out to be one of the most important people I would ever know.

The tragedy of 9/11 was life-changing for our family, though it brought a different kind of change for us, as my husband, a US Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, CA, was soon deployed to Afghanistan, then to Iraq a year later. While he was in Iraq, I gave birth to Catherine, our second daughter, whom he greeted via satellite phone from somewhere on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Catherine was a beautiful, busy toddler who sat, crawled, and walked earlier than most. At a year old, we began to notice that Catherine was not talking—in fact she was not even babbling and didn’t seem to be interested in communicating verbally. She loved to spin in circles and keep herself busy stacking blocks and working with puzzles. By 18 months Catherine had said a few words—surprising us by spurting out a word we had never heard her say—however, in spite of our encouragement, she would never say the word again. We began to notice that Catherine would not respond when we called her by name—soft, loud, near, far—not even a glance in our direction. We took her to an audiologist to have her hearing checked. “Her hearing is normal,” they said. Then came the speech pathologist, the developmental pediatrician, and a host of others…

Autism. It was two days after Catherine’s second birthday that I first heard this word in reference to my own child. I didn’t know much about autism before that day, but I have spent every day since trying to become an expert on this disorder that seemed to loom over my daughter’s future. All summer I took Catherine to public agency intake appointments, assessments, and speech therapy appointments. I spent hours on the phone, with doctors and case managers, frustrated at every turn by the bureaucracy that seemed to keep Catherine from starting the treatment that would help her most. My husband would soon be deployed for another seven month tour in Iraq, and I was feeling the pressure of dealing with this on my own.

On August 8, 2005, I began the day like any other—searching the internet for answers. I found “The Brent Woodall Foundation for Exceptional Children” and learned how Brent’s widow, Tracy Pierce Woodall would, through her own personal tragedy, be inspired to bring hope to the families of autistic children. Encouraged by the success stories of the children Tracy had helped, I emailed the Foundation, told them Catherine’s story and hoped that they might be able to direct me to a local parent training workshop so that I could have the skills to help Catherine myself.

Soon after, I received a phone call from Tracy Pierce Woodall, who told me that she wanted to work with Catherine personally—and as soon as possible. Tracy’s urgency and eagerness to help was a new and welcome change; Catherine and I were on a flight to Texas just three days later.
Tracy and her amazing staff had cleared their schedules for the week in order to work with Catherine and train me in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy and methods of Discrete Trial Training. Each day, the Foundation staff came to our hotel for 5-6 hours of therapy, performed assessments, and began to plan an ABA program that I could do at home with Catherine. In just four days of intensive one on one therapy, Catherine was doing and saying things I would have never imagined just the week before!

When it was time to leave at the end of the week, I tried to say thank you to Tracy for all that she had done, but only tears came. Words just couldn’t express how much she had done for us. Tracy and her staff had empowered me with the tools and knowledge to help Catherine—even if nobody else would. For the first time in months I wasn’t frustrated, but hopeful. I wanted them to know that they had already changed both our lives forever.

Since coming home, I have been able to set up a “therapy space” to work with Catherine who continues to make progress. We have been able to get some hours of ABA services with the state, and I am able to make up the gap in her training with all of the tools I received from the foundation. My hope is that next Spring my husband will return home to a smiling three year old, who greets him with a hug and can say, “I love you Daddy!”

Honoring Brent’s legacy, Tracy and the Foundation are giving families the gift of hope, and the promise of a better future. I often refer to Tracy and her staff as “Catherine’s Angels”—I have never met a group of people who are so dedicated to helping others, changing so many lives along the way.

Update: December 9, 2005
Here is a video of Catherine playing the game “Cariboo” for just the second time with her tutor, Josh. She’s a little stuffy and wipes her nose a lot, as she’s got a bit of a cold.