SALEM, OR - Joseph Shewey had never been able to walk on his own.
Born with a form of cerebral palsy, the nonverbal 4-year-old had to cling to a walker just to stand.
That started to change when a 46-year-old Salem woman, crushed in a horrific car crash, showed up in the waiting room of Joey's physical therapy clinic.
With coinciding appointment times, the two quickly discovered ways to communicate, play, even inspire each other — week after week.
That's where Hilary Morris got the idea. Joey should enter Awesome 3000, an annual fun run put on by the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation.
Joey's sister had done the event. His parents thought it was worth a try. But no one imagined what Joey would do.
Just feet from the end of the race, he paused, tossed his walker to the side and walked across the finish line.
* * *
Hilary only caught a glimpse of the speeding, swerving Toyota before it slammed into the back of her Subaru Outback.
She was on her way last year to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland for an eye exam, stuck in I-5 traffic while a motorcycle accident was cleared near the Aurora exit.
Her car was demolished. Already at the scene, paramedics rushed to help her. Hilary remembers a female police officer removing her earrings so they didn't get lost.
She would make it to OHSU, but as a patient in intensive care.
Hilary would endure hip surgery, numbness and weakness in her hands, severe neck and back pain, bladder and bowel dysfunction and other debilitating injuries.
Months of painful physical therapy lay ahead.
* * *
Joey was a floppy baby. He could barely turn from one side to the other in his first year.
But as he grew, his parents and older sister discovered his complexities. Music, for one, enthralled and soothed him.
So they have every musical toy you can think of — a baby Einstein discovery table, activity cubes, maracas, anything that can be used as a drum.
He lives in Aumsville with his parents, Dave and Aubrie Shewey, and 8-year-old sister Hailey, in a modest, soft-yellow ranch. Joey's daily routine involves three caregivers. The first takes him to the pool or library for a morning activity. The next works with him at school in Salem. And a thirdhandles his feeding tube and watches him in the evening.
As he's progressed with therapy, Aubrie said you can see the concentration on his face. When he steps to the side to avoid his toys on the ground, or perhaps one of the family's furry members, she said you can see his mind race before stepping out.
"Joey has forced us to look at life differently," Aubrie said. "We're learning from him as much as he is learning from us."
* * *
When Hilary first met Joey in the PT Northwest office, she saw a young boy with goggles fastened to his face, a boy who wraps his fingers tightly around those he mingles with. He was learning to pull himself up at a table.
As she sat in the waiting room, she waved at Joey.
"I remember feeling broken and unable to think coming to (physical therapy), yet Joey was a little spark, like a light," she said. "I couldn’t help (but) smile at him, hoping he understood I saw him and thought he was so special."
Though Joey can't speak, he finds other ways to communicate, even if only by making eye contact or offering a smile.
Over the next eight months, Hilary and Joey grew as friends. Hilary didn't know how old he was, what his last name was or his background, but she didn't care.
To her, he was Joey, a young boy in the midst of progress, just like her.
"Initially he wasn’t very mobile, yet over time he became more and more active and engaged," Hilary said. "I was very much blessed by being able to watch him stand, take steps, cruise with his walker and then walk independently.
"One day he came into the waiting room so determined ... I had to move to not be run over."
* * *
Hilary still has to support her head when she drinks or kisses her family. Her hands can be clumsy and she still experiences dizziness, headaches, nausea and some memory lapses.
A wife and mother of four, she has worked with special needs children for years, including as a leader with the special needs run at Awesome 3000.
She's a mental health counselor and supervisor for Yamhill County and commutes daily from Salem to McMinnville because of her passion for the work and her belief in the county's approach to mental health services.
She said the special needs race is important for kids like Joey,not just because it's fun and active, but because it provides children who may not have typical lives with the opportunity to enjoy an activity alongside their peers.
* * *
The atmosphere at Awesome 3000 is loud and electric.
Nearly 3,000 kids from the Salem-Keizer area and their families crowd McCulloch Stadium near Bush's Pasture Park in Salem in May.
And though it's chaotic, the race has been a rite of passage for thousands of students over the last 35 years.
Before Joey's race, Hilary saw him and one of his caretakers, Victoria Gidenko, with other participants warming up on the south infield.
Joey and Gidenko took off excitedly at the start of the race. But nearing the first turn, his parents said Joey began to lose energy.
Though he was the last to finish, Joey powered through the 300-meter race.
When he tossed his walker aside, the crowd erupted into cheers. A tearful cluster of hugs and high-fives greeted him at the finish line.
"He's so resilient," Hilary said. "From the moment he walked across the finish line, I couldn't wait for my next ... appointment."
* * *
Two weeks after the race, Hilary returned to physical therapy. Waiting in the lobby, she looked up to see Joey walk into the room.
His walker was nowhere in sight.
"Where's Joey's walker?" Hilary asked his caregiver. Joey decided he didn't need it anymore, she said.
* * *
Hundreds of people filled the Salem Convention Center ballroom in mid-September for the annual Salem-Keizer Education Foundation back-to-school luncheon.
It's when the group recognizes volunteers and members who make their work possible.
Krina Lee, the foundation's executive director, started telling the audience about Hilary's relationship with Joey and the role she played in helping him participate.
"When I looked up at the large screen and they showed the picture of him crossing the finish line, I gasped with tears because that was such a special accomplishment and now everyone could see it, too," Hilary said.
To her surprise, Joey — dressed in a dapper vest and bowtie — walked on stage with Gidenko's help.
Lee waved Hilary up, where Joey presented her with a clear, crystalline award. She rubbed his back, beaming back at him.
"I'm sure he touched my heart more than I touched his," she said.
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