At the age of 74, New Jersey transplant Bill Walsh has spent the last year pushing his daughter, Caroline, all across the Charleston Southern University campus. The two of them attend every class together, and sometimes, Walsh is called on by a professor to add perspective to a particular topic from which the class might benefit.
Caroline, 19, will readily tell you anything you want to know about any subject. Not bad, considering Caroline didn’t talk at all until she was almost 5. She certainly has a story worth hearing.
Walsh and his wife, Kim, had four biological children and lived a charmed life in New Jersey. After those children became adults and left home, Bill and Kim adopted four more in the years to come. Caroline was a drug baby, born with cerebral palsy. “She was the biggest challenge of our foster children, but she is also the smartest,” Bill says, with his lip quivering and his voice shaking. The emotion builds in Bill, not from embarrassment, but from pride. A father proud to stick out his chest.
Caroline took 16 hours both semesters and is about to finish her freshman year with a 3.4 grade point average. How many college freshmen out there have that to show for their first year?
The Walshes have a grandson about to graduate from The Citadel. The Walsh family hardly knew a thing about Charleston until there was a “Cid” connection. But he sure knows about the Lowcountry now.
Caroline, meanwhile, was continuing to excel in her school work. Her middle school teacher told the Walshes, “I learn more through her than I can teach her.” In high school, Caroline graduated with all A’s and B’s and started looking at colleges.
In her wheelchair during a visit to Charleston Southern, Caroline found that she liked two things right away: The campus was flat, and people she didn’t even know held the door open.
Upon enrollment, her dad kept pushing her to class, helping with the writing assignments, taking her to the bathroom and sometimes sharing lunch. I say sometimes, because Caroline admits that she needs time “away from Dad.”
That’s where Celeste comes in. Celeste and Caroline are the best of friends. Celeste is from Columbia and two or three days a week, the two girls have lunch and talk like, well ... girls. During spring break, Caroline’s family took Celeste to Disney World. It was Celeste’s first time.
Caroline, on the other hand, has been to The Magic Kingdom so often that some people know her as well as they know Mickey.
As this freshman year comes to a close, Caroline and Bill have become quite the tandem. Upon graduation, Caroline wants to work for Disney or Universal helping design rooms for handicapped visitors. She believes there’s still plenty of room for improvement in that area.
In a recent class, she presented a paper on how tough it is for a handicapped person to attend a concert. “We often are placed in the back. What’s the first thing people do when the music starts? That’s right, they stand.” So Caroline has some ideas on how that can be remedied, as well.
Eventually, her goal is to own and operate a hotel for handicapped people. She then turns from her wheelchair and says to her dad, “and you can stay for free.”
Like I said, she didn’t start talking until she was almost 5, but since then it’s been nonstop.
Sometimes we don’t know where we’ll land or how we’ll get there. Caroline and Bill ended up at CSU primarily because somebody opened a door for her. Her ideas on handicap accessibility might just open doors for many others.
Reach Warren Peper at firstname.lastname@example.org.