- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2009

“You gotta make some stances and take some chances” and “You gotta live and learn so you can learn to live.”

Those are lyrics from the Darius Rucker (aka Hootie from rock band Hootie and the Blowfish) smash-hit country solo album, “Learn to Live,” which just landed its third No. 1 single (“Alright”) on Billboard’s Hot Country Chart.

But they’re also prophetic words for another of Mr. Rucker’s passions: helping educate and care for children with multiple and severe disabilities in his hometown of Charleston, S.C.

“I have a cousin with a 6-year-old child who’s severally handicapped, and when I found out that children with severe disabilities don’t have a place to go to school, it just saddened me,” Mr. Rucker said during a recent phone interview.

“I wanted to do something to improve the quality of life for these children,” said Mr. Rucker, a father of three.

South Carolina, like all other states, is mandated by federal law to provide education to all children. Mr. Rucker and others say children with disabilities need much more than the 30 minutes per week of occupational-physical therapy that public schools provide, along with daily special education.

So, Mr. Rucker teamed up with Pam Sloat and other staff members at Pattison’s Academy (www.pattisonsacademy.org), which provides five-week summer camps for children with severe disabilities in the Charleston area. The organization is named after Ms. Sloat’s daughter Pattison, 6, who has multiple disabilities, including spastic quadriplegia, severe cognitive disabilities and vision impairment.

The group - with Mr. Rucker’s financial and promotional help - is now planning to open a school in the fall of 2010 that will provide therapy and education for up to 78 children with severe disabilities.

“We want to have everything these kids need under one roof,” Ms. Sloat said over the phone from a Charleston water park, where she and her other daughters, Amelia, 8, and Marian, 2 (neither of whom has disabilities), were spending an afternoon with Pattison in a specially made, waterproof wheelchair. “Because occupational and physical therapy need to go hand in hand with educational goals.”

Ms. Sloat is working on Pattison’s cognitive abilities - specifically teaching her decision-making - by training her to move her head a certain way to indicate “no” and a different way to indicate “yes” in response to questions.

In other words, both therapy and education are involved.

“But it’s hard, because if she moves her head down too much, she can’t lift it back up,” Ms. Sloat said.

Ms. Sloat said she wants the school to provide wheelchair fittings and have a staff nurse practitioner who can write prescription refills. She also wants regular exercise, outdoor time and field trips for the children.

“They don’t get out much, and it’s not unusual that they spend the day inside, never getting out of their wheelchair,” Ms. Sloat said.

Pattison’s cognitive abilities are at about the same level as a 6-month-old baby’s, Ms. Sloat said.

She’s a pretty typical candidate for the type of children Pattison’s Academy’s executive director Sloan Cooper expects to see next fall.

“Most of these kids will not ever be able to hold down a job or anything like that,” Ms. Cooper said. “But we can help improve the quality of their lives and the lives of their families.”

Ms. Cooper, who also spearheads the annual camp, said many parents are amazed at all the things their children can do with a little medical supervision.

One day, for example, a mother who was visiting the camp saw her severely disabled daughter go down a water slide.

“She just cried and said, ‘I never knew my daughter could do that,’ ” Ms. Cooper said.

Although Pattison’s Academy has been designated as a charter school, meaning it will receive public-school operating funds, it still has no brick-and-mortar facility. Fundraising efforts to acquire a building are under way.

So, while busy touring and planning a new country album, Mr. Rucker, who also advocates and raises money for the MUSC Children’s Hospital and various back-to-school drives for poor children, said he’ll do whatever it takes to get the school off the ground.

“Every other kid has a place to go,” he said. “I want these kids to have a place to go to where they and their parents don’t feel like they’re a burden.”

In other words, give them a chance to live and learn so they can learn to live.

Mr. Rucker performed with fellow country star Dierks Bentley Aug. 13 at Charleston’s Family Circle Stadium and encouraged fans to bring school supplies to be donated to Charleston schools in need. He comes to Columbia’s Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sept. 27 for 93.1 WPOC’s Sunday in the Country concert, which he will co-headline.

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