HIGHGATE/SWANTON — Down a ribbon of winding dirt road sits a home in Highgate, nestled in the lush greenery. Swing sets, a playhouse, a trampoline, a few cats and a barking dog are visible from the roadway.
What is not immediately visible is that the Gagne household has been home to more than 100 foster, adopted and biological children. One of them, Kenny Gagne, lives just miles away in the Swanton Schoolhouse apartments.
Kenny, who is 46 and was adopted by parents Cy and Karen at age three after they fostered him briefly, has disabilities. Among them is cerebral palsy, a movement disorder which limits Kenny’s mobility. Childhood photos of Kenny show him at different times in a cast from the waist down after leg surgery, using a walker and riding in a wheelchair.
None of this, however, has stopped him from seeking independence and a full, meaningful life. In an interview last week, Cy Gagne remembered that from the get-go, Kenny was always looking to do more, see more, be more.
“He wanted to do as much as he could,” said Cy.
When Kenny was an elementary student at St. Albans City School, for instance, he insisted he get on the school bus – by walking on his knees, which made it easier to balance – by himself.
“He could manage it with a walker, but with the gravel, it was tough,” said Cy. He gave Kenny shin guards to protect his knees, and off Kenny went.
“I had to go to the school board and explain why – they thought it was cruel,” said Cy. “[I said,] ‘‘You want me to carry him out there?’ He wanted independence.”
On his own
Kenny never outgrew his desire to do things himself.
“All my life … I convinced my mom and dad that I wanted to live on my own,” said Kenny, who spoke with the Messenger in his living room several weeks ago. “I don’t know how I did it.”
But he did.
After Kenny graduated from Missisquoi Valley Union at age 20 in 1989, he first moved to Montpelier, where he lived in an apartment through a community program with a home provider. He tried a few other living situations around the state before settling in Swanton in 1996.
Now in his current, one bedroom apartment, Kenny lives by himself but has various providers and volunteers visit him during the day, help cook meals or take him on errands and trips.
“[We] go out for lunch or go on a drive or something,” he said.
Kenny’s favorite place for lunch is Maple City Diner and several trophies lining his shelves hint at his skill in bowling. He’s also religious, attending Catholic Mass once a week.
“I pray everyday,” he said.
Kenny sees his family often, too. Photos of his parents, many adopted and fostered siblings and birth mother – who lives in Washington State and who Kenny met for the first time four years ago – line the walls of his living room, cover his refrigerator and the top shelves in his kitchen.
“Lately, he’s been coming over one or two times a week,” said Cy, who added that Kenny has been making special efforts to see his adoptive mother, Karen, who recently had a serious surgery.
When he’s at home, Kenny keeps busy watching television, crocheting and completing the list of chores posted on his refrigerator. When asked what he likes about his living situation now, Kenny said, “More freedom, I guess.”
A full life
Kenny not only looks to defy the limitations of his disabilities in his home, but outside of it. In the past, he’s worked jobs at area restaurants with the help of a work coach, has taken classes at Community College of Vermont, attempted to get his driver’s license, and worked as a self-advocate through Green Mountain Self Advocates.
Kenny has since stopped working jobs and doing his self-advocacy work due to the complications with having an income and disability benefits from the state. He did say he was thinking about getting back into self-advocacy, however. Green Mountain Self Advocates named him 2012 Self Advocate of the Year, and the award is displayed prominently in his living room.
“I was helping other handicapped people speak up [about] what they want,” said Kenny.
Kenny is a board member at Northwestern Counseling & Support Services. In the second year of a three-year-term, he served one term prior as well.
“He puts a lot of stress on himself,” said Cy. “He does well when he applies himself.”
Cy added of his son, “He’s doing great.”
As with any self-starter, Kenny always looks forward. In addition to contemplating self-advocating again, he is also wondering whether he should change his living situation, and have a home provider again.
While he likes living on his own, it can get lonely, and it may be better to have someone there. “It’s worse not to talk to anyone when the hours are over. They go home and you are here,” said Kenny. “It’s not as fun to live on your own.”
Cy wasn’t surprised at his son’s potential plans. “He likes change,” Cy said.
What most likely won’t change are Kenny’s can-do attitude, however, and his defiance of limitations.
“He does very well,” said Cy. “He’s determined.”