Christiansburg native, Franklin Lawson, 28, was presented the Renee S. Brown award from Arc of the New River Valley honoring “individuals with disabilities who are leading full, rich lives as active contributing members of their communities.”
Arc is the nation’s leading advocacy and service organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Arc of the NRV is the local chapter of Arc that serves Montgomery, Floyd, Giles, Pulaski counties and the City of Radford.
“Renee S. Brown was a woman with a disability who was a member of the Arc of New River Valley board. After she passed away, we looked for a way to remember her and decided to give an award each year to honor her,” Christine Cadwallader, an Arc of the NRV board member said.
For any young person, it’s not always easy to venture into the world and, until about two years ago, Franklin Lawson had lived his whole life at home in Christiansburg with his mom and dad and younger brother.
But when he was 26, even though he was worried, he left home to live with roommates in a townhouse in Blacksburg.
“He was extremely apprehensive about moving out,” his mom, Anne Lawson, a counselor for Montgomery County Public Schools wrote in an email announcing the award, “but we felt it was time for him to try.”
And gradually, he has gotten comfortable – paying rent and bills, cleaning the house with roommates.
“He goes to the grocery store, fixes his lunch, which he takes to work and cooks dinner,” his mom said. “He has missed home a lot, but has done very well.”
As a child, in the late-90s, Franklin had a hard time in elementary school. His mom remembers those as “difficult years” both for the boy and the school.
Classified as having a learning disability and speech/language disability, he also doesn’t do well with change she said.
“If the daily routine was interrupted for anything, he struggled,” she said. “His diagnosis/disability was also not clear and the school had a hard time with what modifications to put in place and how to help him succeed.”
He needed allies and support, but it wasn’t until he arrived at Christiansburg Middle School, and gained a case manager, Mollie Prillaman, who took him under her wing and helped him both academically and socially, that, his mom said “Franklin blossomed.”
In eighth grade he started playing trumpet, like his dad, Chip, who works for Roanoke Glass, playing in the marching band and also in church joining both his father and brother. During high school, he became active in efforts advocating for rights and support for people with disabilities.
He participated in the “I’m Determined” a state-directed project funded by the Virginia Department of Education, where he met students from all over the state working on policy changes and improvements for people with disabilities, acting as a leader in this organization for several years.
Begun in 2012, Arc’s Renee S. Brown award recognizes people with disabilities who live full lives, and participate in their communities. Living a “full life” is a laudable goal for people with disabilities – to work and contribute to their communities – because it’s not easy, the community needs to recognize, welcome and advocate for all its members.
“The opportunity to live a full life in community often depends on access to community-based services that provide such things as supported living arrangements, job coaching, access to transportation, and a community that welcomes people with disabilities into churches, civic organizations and recreational opportunities, etc,” Arc of the NRV board member Cadwallader said. Virginia’s budget for providing community-based services is “woefully inadequate” according to Cadwallader, but support programs and encouragement were in place for Lawson and his family.
After graduating from high school, he enrolled in the “On Campus Transition Program” at Radford University auditing classes, holding a job, participating in life skills activities, all through Montgomery County Public Schools. His ally at Radford was Johnna Elliott.
After his third year in the “On Campus Transition Program,” he applied to participate in “Project Search” at Carilion New River Valley Medical Center, a program for students with disabilities to learn “how to work”.
He was again with his high school ally, Mollie Prillaman, who was the “Project Search” coordinator.
“Johnna Elliot and Mollie Prillaman and those two programs helped prepare Franklin for the future,” his mom said. “They were certainly my angels when we were unsure of what he was going to be able to do.”
At the medical center, he was placed in Environmental Services, where he was trained to do specific jobs: taking care of trash, linens, and floors for the whole hospital.
Shortly after beginning, Carilion Hospital hired him full time to do that job, the job he holds today. He works 40-plus hours with great benefits says his mom.
A productive worker and now having no trouble making friends, Franklin has a busy social schedule too.
“Making friends was always hard for him but now he has many friends. It is rare that we go out, go out of town, like to Disney World, that he doesn’t see someone he knows!” she said.
He drives and he takes his girlfriend dinner and movies. He’s active in Special Olympics in volleyball, basketball, swimming, bowling and softball.
“Last summer his softball team made it to the USA Special Olympics games in Seattle, Washington,” his mother said. “He participated and had a really great time, and they brought home a medal! He also participates in Young Life in Blacksburg. We have season tickets to VT football, which he also loves going to.”
The Arc award reflects a life of steady work with support from family, community and larger policies that demonstrates the value of public structures a society puts in place to encourage, train and support individuals with disabilities.
And It takes hard work, his mom said.
“We were all surprised at the award,” his mom said. “Franklin is very proud of his accomplishments and we, as his parents, are very proud!
Franklin’s quote on the subject of the award, she said, aside from being happy to have been awarded is “I don’t have a disability, I just have different abilities.”
She says, “When I think of Franklin, I don’t think of a disability. I see a hard-working, good-hearted young man who has had some obstacles to overcome. He has a sweet personality and is kind to everyone he meets.”
It’s important, says Franklin’s mom, for people to understand that having a disability does not make a person different from anyone else.
“We all have challenges in life, it is how we deal with those challenges that make us the people we are today.
The Lawson family has never given up or taken “no” for an answer, she said.
“If Franklin was unable to do something, we moved on to what he could do.”
Even in the face of doubters, she recalls, who weren’t convinced Franklin would be able to drive, live independently or work full time. But Franklin has proven that he can do almost anything he wants to do.
“For us, as parents,” Anne Lawson said, “it is wonderful to see how far he has come. Working full time, driving, owning a car and living independently with no financial help from us is a dream that he has brought to reality. We are so proud of him!” she said.