Love notes: Mother takes notes for son with cerebral palsy

In an Old Testament class on South Campus, Terri Woody takes notes for her son, Bowling Green freshman Nicholas Chambers. Chambers, who has spastic cerebral palsy, has note-takers provided by Student Disability Services with him in most of his classes, but his mom helps him in classes where note-takers aren’t available.

Tessa Duvall

It’s just what she has to do.

That’s the best way Terri Woody can describe why she sits through hours of classes she doesn’t get credit for.

It’s just what she — a mother — has to do.

Woody’s son, 19-year-old Nicholas Chambers, was diagnosed with spastic cerebral palsy shortly after birth. Although the condition doesn’t affect his cognitive abilities, it does cause muscle tightness that limits his motor function. A wheelchair helps Chambers with mobility, and vocal recognition software allows him to write papers and surf the Web without typing.

“If I was to write my name, you wouldn’t be able to see what it said. When I have to sign stuff, I just do Nic or NPC,” Chambers said.

After graduating from Warren Central High School in Bowling Green in June 2011, Chambers knew he wanted to attend college. Because of his physical limitations, WKU — just a few miles from his home — was the best choice.

Although WKU’s Student Disability Services offers a stipend for peer note takers, no one from Chambers’ classes volunteered during the fall semester. This left one option — Woody would take notes for her son.

“How are you going to get notes for the class if there’s nobody to take notes? So I just went and took notes,” Woody said. “I felt that it was important for Nicholas to have good notes, even though I have horrible handwriting.”

Last fall, Woody’s days began at 5:30 a.m., getting Chambers, along with her 8-year-old daughter, Isabella, and herself ready for the day. From 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Chambers and Woody were in class. Then, after taking Chambers home, Woody was at work from 2-10 p.m. before preparing to do it again the next day.

“As a mother, that’s just what I — and I hate to say it that way — ’cause it makes me sound like I’m making myself look good, but it’s not. That’s what you had to do, to get Nicholas through the first semester. The second semester rolled around, and I don’t have to do quite as much.”

This semester, Chambers has a note-taker in four of his five classes, leaving Woody to attend only one class. Looking back, Woody said it was “exhausting” going to school while working a full-time job and running a household.

But she never second-guessed her decision.

“No, no. Never, not even for a minute,” she said. “There was days that I got up complaining just like Nicholas that I didn’t want to have to get up and go and sit through these classes that I don’t get credit for, but I did and it paid off. Helping him with the math was unquestionably a good move.”

Because Chambers’ CP prevents him from writing, Woody helped Chambers solve his math problems.

“I’ve never been good at math, ever, and I’ve been out of school for 30 years. When we took this math class, I’m glad I sat through the class with him. I learned at the same time he did. When you can’t write, you have to do it all by memory,” Woody said.

“You write it out 100 times, and eventually you get it. Well, Nicholas can’t do that. I bought a dry erase board and sat it up on the counter, and when we would do homework, we would write it all out. That was the plus to taking the class. And everybody asks me why I’m not taking the classes for credit, you know … I never thought I was going to have to take every class with him.”

After surviving Math 109 with a B, the challenge for Chambers is now developing a sense of independence.

Throughout high school, Chambers had a personal aide in every class to assist with his assignments and tests.

Kimberly Branscum, a former special education instructional assistant at WCHS, worked with Chambers on a daily basis during his senior year.

Although some of Chambers’ past aides were overbearing, Branscum said Chambers made it clear that he wanted to make strides on his own.

“He constantly told me, ‘I don’t want you to do everything for me.’ He knew once he got to Western, things were going to be different for him,” she said.

Branscum said she doesn’t see Chambers’ physical limitations holding him back from his goal of graduating.

“He’s not going to let that interfere with his college education,” she said. “I think everyone who does know him would agree that he is probably the most optimistic kid, especially given his circumstances.”

Chambers said he knew college wasn’t going to be easy.

 “This time it was going to be all me — tests, projects, essays,” he said.

Thomas Reece, an adjunct instructor of psychology and Chambers’ instructor last semester, said Chambers’ situation was unique, and he wondered if Woody would act as a 31st student in the class by participating.

“She doesn’t look like someone on my list,” Reece said he remembered thinking. “I was a bit surprised. But it wasn’t too much of a big deal.”

As the semester progressed, Reece said he found Chambers to be an involved, inquisitive student.

“He was the one who is most eager to ask questions, even before class began and say that he’d heard about something on the news and wanted to get my take on the psychological part on that,” Reece said. “Having him in the class made the class more enjoyable.”

Woody, on the other hand, kept a low profile.

“I really admired her dedication,” he said. “I can really understand that in his situation, it can really be difficult without someone there to help him out to take notes.”

While Chambers’ professors understood his situation, some classmates don’t know how to react.

“Most people are not open. They’ll see you, and they’ll just go the other way. They won’t even talk to you — they’ll go the other way,” Chambers said. “And mom says it’s the way, because I talk to people all nervous, because I’m not used to talking to people, or in front of people, because not a lot of people approach me. But I know I can approach people too.”

Although Chambers describes himself as shy, he said he is learning how to approach others.

“Still asking people for things is still really hard for me,” he said. “I don’t like to be open with people, but if I have to say something, like if I really need to get out of the door, I’ll say, ‘Can you open the door for me?’ or ‘Can you get me this?’”

Now at the midway point of the semester, Chambers said his perfectionist personality often leads to procrastination out of fear of disappointing his professors.

“My biggest fear is also not doing it to the expectation of the professor,” he said.  “Like, not putting a period here, not putting a comma there, not doing it exactly right. Like, even if I know the subject, and I know it very well, I always have this pet peeve that I’m going to do it the wrong way and that I’m going to get a bad grade.”

As for what future semesters or careers hold, neither Chambers nor Woody have the answer just yet.

“I haven’t thought that far ahead,” he said. “I know people say, ‘Decide what you want to do,’ but I’m still battling with it, and it’s been what, 19 years?”

Chambers has yet to declare a major, but he said he likes the idea of being involved in law enforcement of some kind after college.

“We haven’t figured out what you can do in that area and be in a wheelchair,” Woody said.

Branscum said she admires all Woody does for Chambers and the rest of her family.

“I love Terri, and I think she does a wonderful job with Nicholas,” Branscum said. “I only hope that I can be as helping and as loving as she’s been for those kids. She knows how important it is for him, and she’s going to do anything she can to help him.”

Chambers agrees.

“I was talking to my friend last night, and she said, ‘There are some mothers who don’t care, who just say, ‘OK, go to school. I’ll pay for your school. I don’t care if you fail,’” he said.

“But my mom does.”