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Mental Health Matters Fall 2018 | Volume 32 Issue 3

In this issue

  1. Arms wide open
  2. A new world of language

Arms Wide Open

by Paula Dubay, Director, Mental Health Marketing

Ferrell Edmunds had a successful career as a tight end in the NFL.

Remarkably, his three sons also landed careers on the gridiron.

The more impressive story, however, is about the 22 foster children he and his wife Felecia, also known as “Cookie,” have welcomed into their home.

A native of Danville, Virginia, Ferrell started his professional career in 1988 when he was drafted by the Miami Dolphins. He played with them until being traded to the Seattle Seahawks four years later. In 1993 and 1994, he earned ProBowl recognition and then retired a few years later.

It was in Miami that Ferrell met Felecia, a schoolteacher and former college track star.

Their three sons, Trey, Tremaine and Terrell, are all in the NFL. Terrell was drafted in the first round this year by the Steelers, Trey initially played for the Saints but recently joined the Steelers, and Tremaine was also drafted this year in the first round by the Bills.

Trey Edmunds
Terrell and Tremaine Edmunds

Like other professional athletes, Ferrell became involved with charities while in the NFL. However, he and his wife wanted to do more than occasionally volunteer or provide financial support to nonprofit organizations. So when they moved to Virginia, they decided to help children whose parents were not able to care for them. They began working with Alliance Human Services, an agency that places foster children with families.

They started by taking in one boy 17 years ago, and since then, they have fostered almost two dozen children. They currently have three living in their home, one of whom has been a member of their family for the past 10 years.

How they do it

Ferrell says they are fortunate to have a large home, so they have had plenty of “dormitory style” space for their foster children as well as their biological sons. He also says that Cookie is “extremely organized.” A lifelong teacher, she spends a lot of time helping them with reading and other schoolwork. “She is like a drill sergeant,” he chuckled. They both realize “these kids have been through a lot, and they are going to run into problems,” so they put plans in place for each child. They also have tapped into the resources available for these kids and work closely with schools and agencies. “It takes a community, and we are just a small part of it,” he added.

Over the years, one of those resources has been Rivermont School-Dan River. Former principal Terry Templeton recalled the first time she met Ferrell when he enrolled one of their foster children in first grade.

Rivermont School - Dan River (highlighted) is in Danville.

“This child and his siblings were removed from their mother’s custody after years of trauma and abuse, resulting in emotional dysfunction and brain injury,” she explained. “I was touched by the gentle nature and compassion that this big man showed this small child. It wasn’t long before the family took on some of this child’s siblings.

This new student was challenging,” continued Templeton. “He was angry, as one would expect. Mr. Edmunds stuck by him, often coming to the school several times a day for meetings and other concerns. As time passed, the student’s anger faded. He began to run after his foster dad to get a hug and kiss him goodbye saying, ‘I love you Dad!’ Mr. Edmunds always reciprocated. Soon this child began to show others love and compassion, often saying ‘I love you’ to the support staff. He also began to enjoy school, and his reading and writing skills flourished beyond expectation.

“Whenever Mr. Edmunds came to our school, he always had an encouraging word for our students, especially the high school boys. They would run up to shake his hand or give him a high five. On one occasion, he came to speak to our students advising them to stay away from negative influences,” Templeton added.

Ferrell and Felecia taught their own sons the same thing. They were strict with them, Ferrrell said. “An 11 pm curfew meant that at 11:05 it was too late; we took the keys.”

When it comes to their foster children, Ferrell stressed the importance of getting the right diagnosis. When a child is struggling, what is on paper may not be accurate.

“You have to observe their behaviors and then ask how we can make a change so they can have a better life. Our goal is to put things in place to help these kids get on the right path,” he said.

He added that his coaches “allowed me to be me, and that’s why I became successful.”

As the Dan River High School varsity football coach, Ferrell treats his players the same way. “My goal is to reach them where they are and use their knowledge to discover what can they bring to our team.”

He is adamant about not putting their foster kids on the school bus. With their busy evening schedules of homework and other activities, and his coaching responsibilities, he sees this daily ritual as his time to communicate with them. “Kids just want and need attention,” he said.

Why they do it

Our family finds the joy in giving, says Ferrell, further evidenced by the fact that Trey started an initiative called 50 Men in Suits, collecting gently worn suits from businessmen in NYC to give to local high school boys for college and job interviews. The entire family also continues to support the Alliance and other organizations that work with children.

“We constantly ask ourselves how we can help change other peoples’ lives in a positive fashion by giving them the opportunities that God has blessed us by giving them the opportunities that God has blessed us with,” Ferrell continued. “If we have a legacy to leave, we want to know that we have made an impact."
A new world of language

When Sophie (not her real name) arrived at Rivermont School–Tidewater, she was inattentive and behaved poorly in class.

Rivermont School - Tidewater (highlighted) is in Virginia Beach.

At her public school, she had often needed behavioral stabilization and emotional support. Sophie was deaf and unable to communicate effectively.

Influenza had stolen Sophie’s hearing in early infancy, robbing her of the critical developmental years of learning speech and language. No one knew sign language at home and because public school education is more auditory than visual, Sophie found it difficult to keep up and was left to figure out her young world in silence.

Intervention services are important to children with any type of hearing loss, but they are critical to those with severe hearing impairment. Without intervention, progression beyond the third grade level is unlikely, according to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association.

Rivermont School offered Sophie an environment that was smaller in size and could help with her emotional/behavioral responses in a therapeutic setting, using those interventions to improve her academic performance. Interpreters from the public schools initially helped the staff communicate with Sophie, and Rivermont School staff members were trained in American Sign Language and were made aware of the unique needs of hearing impaired students.

“It was eye opening to see how difficult it is for an individual who is unable to express her wants and needs,” Heather Pinzon, MEd, vice principal, said, “Sophie expressed herself through behaviors until we could communicate better with each other. It wasn’t long before she was excited and eager to come to school, inspired to learn sign language and communicate with others. As language developed within ourworld, she began to grow in her world, expanding andexcelling both academically and behaviorally.”

Winnie Woods, mental health associate, added that once Sophie found she could communicate with others, her social skills improved. She learned to be respectful, and she could accept “no” for an answer without responding with physical or verbal aggression.

Sophie “loved having friends and developed a sense of belonging among her peer group,” said Marianne Stinson, school therapist. “She was the student who often encouraged her peers to make good choices and excel in the classroom. She eagerly participated in Rivermont’s work experience program, which helped her develop life and work skills.”

Sophie created goals, including her desire to attend the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind (VSDB). She is now a resident there where she has continual exposure to language and socialization with hearing impaired peers and adult role models plus direct instruction from teachers who are fluent in American Sign Language. Pursuing an applied studies diploma, Sophie has worked as a teacher’s assistant and in the cafeteria on campus.

“She is very well liked by the staff,” said Sharon Ernest, transition specialist at VSDB, “She is cooperative, respectful and quite mature. Students who are working on campus,like Sophie, need to prove themselves before they can work off campus. I have no doubts about her work ethic, performance or behavior, and I am confident that she will soon be ready for a job off campus. She’s a great kid.”

Once a troubled child who lived in silence, Sophie has found a new world thanks to language, communication, and those who helped her learn coping skills in order to achieve emotional and behavioral health.

Produced by Centra Mental Health Services Marketing Department

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Created By
Mary Ann Racin
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Cover Photo - Meridith DeAvila Khan

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