Labor of Love

For nearly 60 years, Tupelo’s nonprofit regional rehabilitation center and its army of supporters have helped people with special needs at no cost to the patient.

Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem

For nearly six decades, residents of north Mississippi communities have been within driving distance of a true treasure. Though thousands have been blessed by the benefits of Regional Rehabilitation Center, some remain unaware. But the bottom line is this: Regional Rehab, a privately funded nonprofit, offers a plethora of “therapeutic, restorative and reparative rehabilitation programs” to those in need. And the cost to those receiving Regional Rehab care or to their insurance companies is absolutely nothing.

Through the years, Regional Rehab’s services have given hope to those in need of outpatient physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, dyslexia treatment, audiology services and early childhood intervention.

As a nonprofit organization, Regional Rehab depends on donors and supporters to help with community fundraisers. One such event held annually for more than 20 years is the Kentucky Derby Party, where food and fun abound, accompanied by a silent auction and betting with Derby Dollars on the famous “Run for the Roses” at Churchill Downs. The popular event was hosted for a number of years by longtime supporter Tom Evans, who died in 2020. In 2019, the Derby party raised more than $12,000 for Regional Rehab.

These days, a yearly telethon also provides major funding for the center. In its early years, the fundraiser began as a radiothon, which, over time, technologically morphed into the telethon. When watching a Regional Rehab telethon, one learns not only about its substantial history of helping but also about the people — those who have received services and the humanitarians whose advocacy of Regional Rehab is, more often than not, a lifetime labor of love.

“The Regional Rehabilitation Center is blessed to have an amazing staff and board,” said Regional Rehab director Robbie Parman. “Each person deeply cares about our community and concentrates on how we can help as many people as possible on a daily basis. We are so proud of our history, the many who aided in the establishment of the rehab center, and all the individuals who have served to keep our doors open throughout the years. We are honored to be able to continue that legacy.”

Parman was a social worker with the Department of Human Services and serving as the campaign director for United Way when his path crossed that of Kay Mathews, then director of Regional Rehab, and a bond was formed. When Mathews retired as director, Parman stepped in. He has served in that capacity for over six years.

The idea for Regional Rehab came about over 60 years ago, percolating in the head and heart of a Tupelo woman named Nita Williams Butler. Butler’s brother, Milford Williams — 11 years younger than his sister — was diagnosed at a young age with cerebral palsy. Upset at the lack of opportunities for her brother, Butler became a fierce advocate for Milford and others like him. She wrote hundreds of letters, did research and eventually helped organize a speech clinic for those with cerebral palsy in four rooms at Harrisburg Baptist Church on West Main Street (now the Link Centre.)

At the time, another Tupelo resident, John A. “Red” Rasberry, heard of Butler’s work to help her brother and others living with CP. Rasberry, too, had a brother who had received the same diagnosis. Butler and Rasberry worked together on the CP clinic, which ultimately became Regional Rehabilitation Center. A black and white photograph in the Daily Journal from the early 1960s, shows a row of men and Butler, shovels in hand, for the groundbreaking. The center opened in 1961.

Perhaps in part because of her grandmother’s legacy, Kari Butler Robison works at Regional Rehab as a licensed physical therapist assistant. She has been with Regional Rehab 18 years.

Through the years, Regional Rehab began helping those with a broad spectrum of special needs, not just cerebral palsy. Butler and Rasberry continued to work together as the voices and faces of the center, which today has a board of directors made up of 50 people and an executive committee of nine.

One of those 50 members of the Regional Rehab board is Shona Burk of Pontotoc. Burk’s support of Regional Rehab is longstanding and loyal. She became a believer in the mission of Regional Rehab through the years as her children became beneficiaries of the care doled out. Burk’s daughter Chaia, 22, who has epilepsy, had speech, physical and occupational therapy over the years.

“She no longer comes, but she still considers this place home,” Burk said.

Burk’s son Skyler is 20 and was diagnosed years ago with autism. He remains a fixture in the family that is Regional Rehab.

“Skyler’s speech was not developing as a child,” Burk said. “I didn’t know Regional Rehab existed. But when I did find out about this place and Skyler started early intervention, our lives changed. Both Chaia and Skyler finished high school and now work on our family farm.”

When the nonverbal Skyler was 12, he began using technology that allows him to express words and thoughts on a speech-generating device. It changed the lives of Skyler and those who love him.

“I had this child who was trapped in a body that couldn’t speak,” Burk said. “I had no idea what things he liked or didn’t like. I didn’t know he liked mustard on his scrambled eggs. Because of this technology we have realized Skyler has such a sense of humor and he does things deliberately just to get a rise out of people.”

Now serving her second term on the board of directors, Burk loves singing the praises of Regional Rehab and wants others to know of the treasure that exists in Tupelo.

“You can trust these people,” she said. “They will never give up on your child or loved one. You will be a part of this family. They are always looking for ways to help.”

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