Podcast Transcript: Interview with Taylor Westbrook. Part 1 – 2/21/2019
In Episode 3, Jacklyn talks with LiveBeyond’s Johnny’s Kids Coordinator, Taylor Westbrook. He shares how his whole life prepared him to be a missionary, specializing in helping children with special needs and then what some of his day-to-day interactions look like with the children in the program and their families.
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[0:00] JVB: Hello, everybody, and welcome to another LiveBeyond podcast. I’m so excited to introduce you to Taylor Westbrook. He is LiveBeyond’s At-Risk Coordinator, and he primarily works a lot with our special needs program, Johnny’s Kids. And so, everybody welcome Taylor Westbrook.
[0:19] TW: Hello. How are you?
[0:20] JVB: Doing good, how are you?
[0:23] TW: I’m doing good. Thank you. Just living it up here in Haiti.
[0:27] JVB: Good, we’re so excited that you’re here joining us today. I just have a couple questions for you, and I would love to hear: How did you hear about LiveBeyond? How did you get involved? And just kind of tell us your story.
[0:40] TW: Yeah, I heard about LiveBeyond probably somewhere in the year around 2014 or so, and a previous boss of mine had actually been here on two previous trips with her husband. And so that is actually how I heard about LiveBeyond. And then I, went through some events with my wife, and she actually had passed away in 2015. And from there I really felt a call into missions. Having never even been on a mission trip, I felt the call to missions and LiveBeyond was the first thing that came to mind. And so, I signed up for a trip and moved, or didn’t move, but I came on my first trip in April of 2016.
[1:28] JVB: That’s so good, and you haven’t looked back since, have you?
[1:32] TW: No. After that, I actually came here in April. And then I came back every two and a half to three months until I moved here in 2017. So, I had actually already planned to move here before I visited for my very first time, and on the Thursday night of my last trip I got to talk with Laurie a lot about my plans and what I was thinking and feeling God was calling me to do. And that’s when she asked me back for an internship, and it’s just moving forward ever since.
[2:05] JVB: I remember you came down for an internship, and then you just never left. It just progressed into something so much more. It was so great. But, well that’s so good. So, Taylor, tell us a little bit about what you do, what your day-to-day life looks like. And I want to hear more about the calling that the Lord has put on your heart.
[2:22] TW: Yeah, so basically every day here I have a group of students that come in, Johnny’s Kids, and they all have either physical, mental, or both – disabilities. And I have a morning class and an afternoon class. So currently, I have four in my morning class, and I have two in my afternoon class because my third woman just recently passed away. But we’re actually looking at right now we have three new students, three girls that are in the wings just waiting to come in. And they’ll most likely be fed into our afternoon schedule. So, I’d wake up in the morning; the children start arriving just a little after 8:00. We have breakfast, here at the pavilion, and by 9:00, we’re starting class. And so, I have two teachers, Lourdemay and Nerlande, and I have one assistant, Ricardo Paul. And we just have picked this program up and just ran with it, because it was so unstructured before and, you know, the kids were only here when the team was here, and there was a lot more freedom in what we did with the kids and how I would have those children interacting with the team. But now it’s very structured. It is very much a school. And so, we start off the morning in prayer and song to Jesus. And we start off every morning by the kids inviting Jesus to come into their heart and to stay there forever. So, I think that’s just an awesome way to start the day and, you know, just work our way into ABCs, 1-2-3s, colors, good manners, positions, parts of the body, stories, history of Haiti, and just varies from day-to-day what it is. But it’s a very much a lot of repetition, and a lot of slow going. And then they have a lunch afterwards at around 11:30, and they leave after that. And then my second class usually is in around 1:30-ish, and we start over and do the exact same thing with them that we did with the morning crew. So, it’s very it’s very structured. My teachers are expected to run it just like the other classrooms in our LiveBeyond school, so they have their daily lesson plans, and they have to have those done the week before school starts, or you know, the next week starts. And so, every day we know what we’re doing and they get in there in the morning and they get it all written on the board, because I told them it’s very important for the kids to be able to see a schedule every day. So, they like to get in there, and they get everything written on the whiteboard, and, and we just make it happen. So…
[5:02] JVB: That’s so good. So, Taylor, how did you even get involved with this special needs program? Because that’s not what your profession was when you were living back in the States. So, kind of where did this shift happen for you?
[5:17] TW: Well, I grew up around special needs all my life, so, or basically all my life. My mother has had special needs individuals that lived with her as foster kids, but they’re actually adults, since I was probably eleven. And though I didn’t live in the home with my mother, I, you know, I’ve been around them since I was the age of 11, and so it was very normal to me to be around people with special needs. And I recently, or not recently, but I then transitioned into that when I was at Denton Bible in Denton, Texas. And I volunteered with a child who had autism, or he still has autism. He’s doing wonderful. He’s in high school now, but I volunteered with him for ten years, and I was just in a special needs class there, as a result. We were in the typically functioning classes until it was just too hard and outbursts and behaviors just wouldn’t allow us to be in those classes any longer. So, we transitioned into the special needs classes, and I was there with him for several years in that. And so, I think the reason I got involved here with special needs is because that was on my application, that I had worked with special needs. I never intended to work with special needs, that wasn’t in my thought process when I thought God was calling me into missions. I always felt it would be something to do with kids, but I did not have that in mind. But when I got here, I was asked to be in Johnny’s Kids, and that first day I picked up Chenielo, and he stole my heart, and we just never looked back, and I wasn’t given the opportunity either. He said, “Oh, yeah, that’s what you’re here for. That’s all you’re gonna do.” And I was like, “Okay, we can do that.” And, and then I never left, so every trip I’ve been on since that’s all I ever did. So, I, you know, people look at me and they ask me about the clinic and about scabies, and I’m like, I really don’t know. I’ve never been there, so I think that shocks some people. But this is definitely my groove and, and we’re in it. So, we like to stay there, find out who does what, and what they enjoy and what God has called them to do. And, and I think that’s what makes it work.
[7:40] JVB: Well I just think, how cool is it that, you know, you grew up with your mother having this passion for special needs children, but at the age of eleven, you never dreamed of the fact that you would be living in Haiti now running a special needs program. I just think that the way that the Lord moves and works is just unfathomable, and I just think it’s so cool to see how He’s been piecing these blocks together throughout your entire life in order to prepare you for this. So, I just think that’s such a such a special thing.
[8:11] TW: It really is. I think, that experience and then just the solid ten years leading up to coming here. So, there was just a little bit of a break in the time between the time that I worked with Matthew and I came here because I had to stopped working with him because of work situations and scheduling and things of that nature. But I think all those building blocks, really were being laid perfectly and has brought me to this point. And that’s why it was such a seamless transition for me – because I did not come from this world. I do not have a degree in education or physical therapy or special needs or any of those things.
[8:53] JVB: I love that, I love that so much. Okay, so tell us a couple of stories, tell us some experiences, and I want to just hear directly, how you are trying to change the narrative in Haiti about how people view special needs. And so, you know, what is that narrative right now? And what are you trying to change it to?
[9:14] TW: Ah man, the narrative is slowly changing across the island. When you listen to other organizations speaking about what’s going on, or what they’re doing and you get to see some, some, various aspects of life that’s just changing for people. But, truly the narrative for special needs, whether it’s a physical or mental, it’s just not good for the most part. They’re very shunned by their communities, they’re shunned by their own families. There’s a lot of shame in the family. So, even if they’re part of a family and, and, you know, get to have that experience of being loved by a mom or dad or sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles, they really don’t experience it at large. From that they’re there at home. They’re kept at home. They don’t go places with them, they don’t travel with them, they don’t move around with them. And, you know, they’re not really mentioned that much outside of that front porch experience. And, you know, there’s a lot of cultural things in Haiti that are, are cemented that really need jack hammering, and so that’s just a little by little what we do. You know, with the voodoo culture being so strong here, you know, the child I had that just recently passed away. His father was a voodoo priest, and, and he was shunned at birth, basically, because he was viewed as a curse. And so, he came to me at 7 years of age, having never been in school, barely talking beyond a baby level. He had plenty of words to say, but there was so much trauma in his life that he just wouldn’t come out of that little shell. And all that was wrong was he was missing a left ear. He had no mental disability at all. He wasn’t physically disabled, it was just that missing ear. And as a result of, of coming from a voodoo culture, he was just shunned and passed around. And, you know, you would look at him and think he was 4 years old, and he was 7. And then another example is, is Fabian. I love to go pick Fabian up at her house because everybody in her community calls her cocobai, which is just a word for worthless. And it could be a general word for a person with a handicap.
[11:52] JVB: But the root of it…
[11:53] TW: Yes, but the root of it is just the meaning of worthless. And so, they literally will scream this out at this child as we’re walking like it’s her name. And so, a couple weeks ago, I had a team with me, and I have been telling them that they would do that in the, the community and her little village right around her house. And so, we’re leaving and this man is building a wall and he has a trowel in his hand, and he’s throwing cement on the brick and he’s leaning over, and he says, you know, “Cocobai,” and screams at Fabian, and she grunts and says, you know, something back in her own little language. And I stopped, and I turned around, and I was holding her hand and I said, “Her name is Fabian”. And I said, “You just said cocobai, which is difficult to say, and so you can say Fabian. So, let’s give that a shot, you know? Let’s try it.” And he just looked at me like I was crazy, and I said it again. “No, you said one word, so I know you can say another one. So, let’s try Fabian, because that’s her name.” And so, this man looming over me, you know, because he was way up high on a ladder finally goes, “Fabian,” and I was like, “That’s good. Okay, orevwa (goodbye), we’re leaving now, thank you.” And so, we got in the car, and I just felt a little gratification at that, that you know that in her community, it’s not as much as it was when I went and picked her up the first time or the second and third time. But still, it’s still there and it’s just so culturally acceptable that you just have to, you have to break it down where you can. And so, yeah, I just continue to work with that. I have another student that comes in and, and he has microcephaly, and to get his family, because it’s his extended family, his mother has abandoned him, and so for them to even have him is a little miracle. But, you know, he just came in this week and he’s regressed because they haven’t been bringing him, and I found out from his extended family in Croix des Bouquets, that they’re kind of scared of him. They’re, you know, they’re kind of unsure of him. And, so he came in, and his little hands have contracted up and his fingernails were curled up and curling into, his, the palm of his hands. And so, I had to just have a talk with them and say, “I’m not passing judgment on you. This is just about your life and his life and quality of life. And, and your life is difficult with him. I understand. But your life is going to be more difficult if you don’t try to help him, and we can help him. If you’ll just get him here to me, we can help him, and help him with something that will make it a little bit easier for you,” and just kind of meeting her half way there. Not trying to say, “What are you doing?” and throwing shame on her, but just saying, “Hey, we want to come alongside of you, and this is what we can do.” So…
[14:50] JVB: Yeah, because, I mean, I love what, what you’ve done with the program is, you know, you talk to the families, and you say “Okay, What? What would be helpful for you?” You know, when I think of Daphne and her mother said if she could bathe herself and put on her own clothes, you know, that would be so helpful for her, you know, as a mother just getting all of her children ready. And so, having to, you know, kind of figure out what are the physical therapy stretches that we need to do that will, you know, help strengthen her legs so she can, you know, pull on a skirt, or, you know, like, what does that look like? And you know, so it’s, it’s truly this when you when you talk to the parents, you’re like, “We really do want to help you and come alongside you, and, you know, and increase not only their quality of life, but also your quality of life as a family.”
[15:40] TW: Right.
[15:40] JVB: And so, yeah, I just I mean, I like what she said when, you know, there, there’s so many things that you feel like are cemented and concrete that you have to go at with a, you know, a sledge hammer or jack hammer. But sometimes you feel like you just have, like, a little nail file that you’re trying to scrape away. But, I mean, I know that you’re doing such incredible work, and making so much progress.
[16:06] TW: Yeah, we really are. I mean, it’s not just me, it’s the overall environment. But when you, you look at Daphne, and, and, you know, she struggles in a lot of areas. But this week she got to work with a speech pathologist that knows absolutely no Creole, but just different, but just different techniques of holding her tongue, just trying to teach her how tongue placement. She got to work with the physical therapist, because I really want her to be better at transitioning from chair to chair or from the chair to floor. And so, we were working on abdominal exercises that she could do. We’re talking about bathing. We talked to the mother about these different types of things that she wanted her to be able to do. But, you know, it just brought up a thing in my head that I’ll go to Daphne’s house, and often times she’s not quite ready, so they might be right in the middle of bathing or just finishing her up. And, I don’t think they quite understand the concept of letting them try to do some things more independently. So that’s just, I just made a note as we’re talking, I need to talk to her mother about that. “Set, set Daphne in the kivèt (tub), and give her the washcloth and kind of let her start taking the lead on that.” So those were just some important things to really consider, and always want to be on top of with the family. And that’s why I like to go pick up the kids and drop them off. So, I at least try to do that once a week or go visit them on Fridays and do the food bags. Because, my kids could take food back home on Thursday and we could be all good and well and finished. But it’s nice to be at their house in their environment, just for those few minutes and, and be face-to-face with the mom or dad or whoever the family member is that’s there. Just trying to make those connections, they just haven’t thought about Daphne and how they don’t seem to let her do some things on her own and that just really clicked in my, my, in my head. Like, “You wanted her to bathe, let’s practice on that a little bit,” but it’s hard to do such things, you know, when you’re on time schedules, you know, everyone’s in a hurry. So, it’s Daphne, bathing herself would be a process. It’s gonna be a long process. So…
[18:19] JVB: Well Taylor, we are so incredibly proud of all the work that you’re doing in Haiti and how you are transforming these kid’s lives. Well, everyone, that is the end of part one of our interview with Taylor Westbrook. If you are interested in hearing Part Two, please check us out on iTunes. And if you’re interested in learning a little bit more about what LiveBeyond is and what we do, please go to livebeyond.org where you can learn a little bit more about us. But we also have all of our 2019 dates listed there. So, if you’re interested in coming and joining us on a mission team, you can absolutely check out those dates and register for a mission. If you also feel like the Lord is putting it on your heart to donate, you could also donate at livebeyond.org. Thanks so much, and go out and LiveBeyond!
Part two of the podcast transcript is available here.
Learn more about our Johnny’s Kids program here.
Changing Lives in Haiti and Beyond. Here from one team member about her experiences with LiveBeyond and more specifically about her experience with one of Johnny’s Kids.
More from Taylor Westbrook: What does a missionary look like?
Coach Gene Stallings remembers Johnny on World Down Syndrome Day. Learn more about the Johnny’s Kids program’s namesake – John Mark “Johnny” Stallings from his father, legendary football coach Gene Stallings.
Become a Johnny’s Kids sponsor here.
Hear the latest news from Haiti, read posts about faith and community development, and find transcriptions from the LiveBeyond podcast.