At only 8, Bri Johnson understands a few life lessons that even some adults still struggle with.
The vibrant girl is full of sage advice. Just ask.
“You’re beautiful in your own way, and don’t let anybody get you down just because you don’t look as beautiful as everybody else,” she says.
“Know you’re beautiful inside — it’s what counts instead than outside,” she adds.
And most importantly, she says, “Never make fun of somebody.”
These are things Bri has learned, thanks in part to almost seven years that she has spent in programs at Special Care, an early childhood education center with specialized care and therapeutic services for children with and without special needs.
The Oklahoma City education center includes classes of such children, including Bri and her 3-year-old sister, Sammi.
Bri was accepted into Special Care’s program at 15 months. Her grandmother, Walkidia Gomez, took Bri there after doctors diagnosed the girl with spinal muscular atrophy.
Bri has the Type II form of the disorder. She hasn’t been able to walk since she was 1 and uses a power wheelchair. Bri also wears a brace that keeps her upright and helps with her scoliosis.
Symptoms of this type of the disorder typically appear between ages 2 and 17, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Complications include scoliosis and chronic shortening of muscles or tendons around joints, according to the institute.
The prognosis is poor for babies who are diagnosed with the Type I form of the disorder. Most do not live past their second birthday.
For children like Bri with Type II, the prognosis for life expectancy or for independent standing or walking roughly correlates with how old they are when they first begin to experience symptoms, according to the NIH. Life expectancy is hard to calculate, but some people with spinal muscular atrophy live into adolescence or young adulthood.
Bri’s family doesn’t focus on that.
Rather, Gomez bounds with energy for her granddaughter.
At a play performance at Special Care on Thursday, Gomez was quick to sit on the carpet in the front row of Special Care’s auditorium, her cellphone out and ready for Bri to come on stage.
“There she is,” Gomez whispered to those around.
Gomez, her husband, Paul, and Bri’s mother, Teresa Johnson, held out their mobile devices, each recording Bri’s class song.
These are moments the family enjoys, thanks to Special Care.
Gomez will spend as much time talking about Special Care as anyone will listen, showing off the facility and explaining the impact it has had on her granddaughter. She is grateful.
Before Special Care, Bri was at a daycare where she sat, quietly and alone in a corner. It’s the opposite of how most people who know Bri would describe her.
After Thursday’s play, Bri traveled the halls of Special Care, packed full of friends who said goodbye and teachers who complimented her play costume.
“I guess I’m kind of famous already,” Bri said, with a hearty laugh.
Gomez said without Special Care, moments like this wouldn’t have probably been possible. The people are Special Care have helped Bri develop a positive attitude, Gomez said.
For Bri, Special Care feels more than just a place she learns and does crafts.
“It feels like a family,” she said. “Everyone here is different but the same in their own little ways. We have different personalities, we don’t look the same, we don’t act the same — we can be just the way we want to be, and we chose the way we want to be.”
It feels like a family. Everyone here is different but the same in their own little ways. We have different personalities, we don’t look the same, we don’t act the same — we can be just the way we want to be, and we chose the way we want to be.”
Johnson, 8, was accepted into the Special Care education center after doctors diagnosed her with spinal muscular atrophy.