FISHERSVILLE — She was a toddler when a family member poured boiling water on her head, scalding her to within inches of her life. Back then her name was Galina Nickanova, and the authority that took her from her mother wasn’t Virginia. It was Russia.
What were the chances she would be adopted by good parents, heal in body and spirit, and get a shot at Virginia’s premier program for the disabled, much less graduate with its highest honor?
“If we had a lineup and I asked you which one is the successful cabinetmaker, Morgan would probably be the last to be chosen.” said Dwight Foster, the WWRC building trades instructor who became her mentor.
But the student Foster calls his most surprising succeeded brilliantly. And because two-thirds of Virginia’s disabled residents don’t have jobs but would like to, let’s look at what went right for Morgan Bean.
Morgan is a wonderful example of vocational rehab at its best.
- Bonnie Henn, DARS vocational rehabilitation counselor
At wits’ end
The Beans not only wanted to adopt a child, they wanted to adopt one with special needs. Whisked into the good life in Northern Virginia, their daughter’s memories of Russia faded. Repeated surgeries reduced her body scars. She became a quintessential American kid.
But there were scars even the Beans, with their education and means, couldn’t reach.
Post-traumatic stress — her orphanage had been located in a militarized zone -kept young Morgan in a constant state of fight or flight. “Don’t show weakness because people will jump on you like a pack of wild dogs,” was a typical defense.
When she tried to sleep, a man with an ammo belt appeared in her dreams and chased her over a cliff. When she tried to read, letters moved and switched places on the page. By the time she finished high school, Morgan was a bright, headstrong teen burning to leave home.
The Beans tried Northern Virginia Community College, but “I just got really bored.” Morgan said.
Everyone was at their wits end by the time Morgan showed up on my doorstep — even Morgan.
Dwight Foster, lead building trades instructor, WWRC
Inspired by her grandfather, a metal crafter, she did a stint in Thomas Nelson Community College’s welding program. It ended when she injured her back in a car accident
The Beans next turned to the commonwealth’s Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, which recommended a job for Morgan stocking boxes of meat at Wal-Mart. After three months, she was dismissed for eating grapes, she said.
“Everyone was at their wits’ end by the time Morgan showed up on my doorstep — even Morgan,” Foster recalled.
Never give up
When DARS vocational rehabilitation counselor Bonnie Henn met Morgan in 2013, she saw a frustrated young woman who knew she was capable of more.
“I think Morgan knew inside she had a gift,” Henn said. “I asked her what is it you really want to do, and she said, ‘I want to create things. I want to work with my hands.’”
WWRC’s building trades program came instantly to Henn’s mind.
A sign outside the Fishersville wood working shop reads, “Building our dreams, working at our future.” Inside, Foster’s students turn out walnut hope chests and cherry pie tables so fine they have two-year waiting lists for the public to buy. An advisory board of local employers helps keep the curriculum relevant and assures internships and jobs.
But not every disabled Virginian can be admitted to WWRC.
Of 2,630 cases served in 2014, little more than 400 were fully enrolled in vocational training here, according to the most recent annual report. Funding is limited. Getting accepted is hard. All services focus on gaining independence for WWRC clients so the staff can help the next person in line.
Short, with warm brown eyes and brunette locks pushed under a cap, Morgan didn’t look the cabinetmaker part when she arrived at Foster’s shop, but she had a drive he had seldom seen.
“And to keep it through so many failures,” he said. “There’s something about her that makes you care.”
Each day Foster started the class getting his students to talk about what they learned the day before.
“Everyone has a disability,” he likes to say. “I focus on abilities.”
Not every disabled Virginian can be admitted to WWRC. Of 2,630 cases served in 2014, little more than 400 were fully enrolled in vocational training.
WWRC works on developing desirable employees as much as technical skills. Morgan needed to improve her attendance.
“I tried to get her to like coming to work so much she doesn’t want to stay away,” Foster said.
It worked. After five months, her attendance was at 95 percent. The class threw a small party to celebrate.
Besides woodworking, Morgan’s 19-month program included wraparound services she needed to build herself up — life skills, physical and psychological therapies, audiology and speech-language clinicians, even a forklift operating class.
For the first time, she lived away from home in her own room, sharing a kitchen with roommates.
It wasn’t long before Foster and Henn noticed a change.
“The more dirt I have on my outfit, the harder I’ve worked,” Morgan would say proudly, or “I’m going to own a cabinetry business. That’s how that’s going to go.”
And when visitors stopped by, she would show them around and say, “This is my college.”
Welcome to the real world
Foster won’t say so, but he clearly has a soft spot for the likable young carpenter’s assistant. Everyone does.
I told her you need to tell him you love him. You have to say those three words in that exact order: ‘I love you, dad.’
Dwight Foster, WWRC
But while nurturing her skills, he cautioned her and all his cabinetmaking students not to expect too much too soon. That’s why they learned forklift and assembly skills, so they could work in a warehouse or assemble toys at Toys R Us if they couldn’t get a job in their field.
WWRC students do a six-week internship before they graduate. The cabinetmakers usually intern at Mills Cabinet Shop in Bridgewater, A job at this custom shop would be a plum — Mills hired its first WWRC intern full-time last year — but although Morgan did well, it didn’t happen.
December’s graduation was bittersweet. To her surprise, Morgan was called up to receive the Frank O. Birdsall Award for her exemplary contributions at WWRC.
“There is no higher award,” Foster explained. “In all my years here, I’ve only seen two or three of these awards given.”
After the ceremony Foster met with her and her parents in his office. He had one more assignment for her to complete. Earlier in the school year, Mr. Bean had been diagnosed with cancer. Morgan had asked Foster for advice.
“I told her you need to tell him you love him. You have to say those three words in that order: ‘I love you, dad.’”
Never one to show emotion, Morgan finally did.
“It brought him to tears,” Foster said. “It was a wonderful moment.”
Then the graduate went home with her parents to Northern Virginia with a list of employers to call, but no job.
Modern Boy meets girl
One day Dwight called me and said, ‘I have this girl. She’s the best student I’ve ever had.’
Paul Borzelleca, owner, Modern Boy Wood Shop
Hidden off Middlebrook Ave. in Staunton, Paul Borzelleca’s Modern Boy Woodshop is a haven for creative types, strewn with curios and old canoes among the custom work in progress.
As a small employer with six to eight carpenters, Borzelleca advises the WWRC cabinet-making program but can seldom afford to hire from it.
“One day Dwight called me and said, ‘I have this girl. She’s the best student I’ve ever had,’” Borzelleca said.
It was January, and Morgan had returned to WWRC to pick up the toolbox she’d left behind. She confided to Foster she was starting to go stir crazy at home.
“I took the tools to my car, and when I returned, Dwight gave me a business card and said, ‘You have an interview in an hour,’” Morgan recalled.
Early in the spring
Morgan started at Modern Boy on Jan. 27. Soon she found an apartment nearby. April came, the dogwoods were budding, and finally, so was her life.
Henn calls her young client “a very wonderful example of vocational rehab at its best.” From her parents to DARS and WWRC, caring people helped her minimize the barriers to her dreams, and build on what she was good at.
But Henn is quick to add, “Morgan did all the hard work. It was up to her to use the resources we provided.”
It still is.
Photos by Mike Tripp. Originally published at www.newsleader.com.