The story of Lauren LeFebvre is a song of hope. She grew up in Cold Bay, Alaska, home to an airbase. Her father worked for the Federal Aviation Administration. Cold Bay, population 100, is an isolated village in the Aleutian Islands. Lauren attended a two-room school with thirty other children in grades one through 12. In Cold Bay, on a stormy day, she would look out her window to check the school lights. If off, it meant she had a snow day; if on, she walked the short distance to school, coming home again for lunch break. Until she reached the eighth grade, that village was all she knew.
In 1979, however, her parents, wanting to be closer to her grandparents, moved to Wilmington. It was a culture shock for Lauren. Here, life was more official. The radio announced school closings; attending school meant riding a big yellow bus to another town, AuSable Forks; she could no longer go home for lunch, and she spent her days in large classes surrounded by strangers.
This is the background from which her amazing story unfolds. Lauren's life had always been defined by a disability: She was a stutterer. During her growing years, she was unmercifully teased about this, teased and then teased some more. Help with her problem was limited by a poor understanding of needed therapy. It doesn't take much to imagine what this does to a child's character. Though lively and intelligent, she withdrew into herself, spoke as little as possible, and lived her school days in solitude.
(Photo — Caper Tissot)
In 1984, after graduating from high school, she went on to North Country Community College in Saranac Lake. There she met and fell in love with Jeff LeFebvre. They married in 1990 and in 1992 had a baby girl, Veronica. Jeff worked at the American Management Association while Lauren was content to stay in her Loon Lake home and raise their child.
Stuttering is a genetic problem involving a certain tightening of the mouth muscles. When Veronica was barely tow-years-old, Lauren's fears were realized. Her child had inherited this disability.
"It killed me when I saw her having a hard time," she explained. Lauren had always avoided using a phone. "Even if the house were on fire," she said, "I would have been too terrified (because of stuttering) to use that phone." However, knowing what kind of a life awaited her child, she found the courage needed to make a call to the Speech and Hearing Clinic at SUNY Plattsburgh.
Fortunately, because of genetic predisposition, the staff agreed to accept Veronica, the youngest client they had ever treated. Because her problem was caught so early, Veronica was treated successfully. "Nine years old is too late to start therapy," says Lauren, who had undergone unsuccessful treatment at that age.
One day, Lauren came across an article about John Albach who was involved with the National Stutterering Project (NSP) in San Francisco. He also had a young child going through the same thing as her daughter. That very evening, her husband announced he had to make a business trip to San Francisco and did she want to go along? The coincidence was too much. Lauren, who usually felt she was an embarrassment to her husband when in public (that was her thinking, not his), surprised him by saying yes.
In San Francisco, she met John Albach and was impressed with his attitude about his stuttering. She joined the NSP. Upon returning home she received her first NSP Newsletter. It contained an article about an intensive speech therapy program in Washington state. It was expensive, but a scholarship from the NSP was available. On a long shot, Lauren applied for it. A few days later, she found out she was pregnant and realized that even were she lucky enough to be granted the tuition, she would have to turn it down. It was just too close to her due date.
To her surprise, she was awarded the scholarship. About that same time she suffered the heartbreak of a miscarriage. Something told her, in spite of this tragic event, that for her daughter's and her husband's sake, she ought to take advantage of the chance to get therapy. "I wanted to be a better person, a better mom and a better wife," she recalls. She flew out to Washington state and spent three and a half weeks in intensive and difficult treatment. There she learned a completely new approach to stuttering and came to realize how the effects of such a disability become magnified by one's inner response to it. To accept and manage the stuttering required a complete honest look at the hardest things she had to face, then meeting them head on and dealing with them. It was a stunning turning point. She acquired a complete new approach to life.
Lauren returned home a different person. No longer did she need her husband to speak for her (as her parents had also done). She went out in public and, amazingly, started to use the phone for the first time. Jeff was delighted with the changes but did have to do some adjusting to this new person he was married to, one who took control of her own life and was no longer so dependent.
Another child was on the way when Lauren took it upon herself, despite her husband's hesitancy (the new Lauren!) to apply for a Habitat for Humanity home. Jeff had wanted to construct a house but they could not afford a building loan. Habitat selected them as the recipients of the first local Habitat project. Jeff did a good deal of the building after all, along with Habitat volunteers. In 1995, daughter Autumn was born. In 1997, they moved into a new home in Onchiota. It was perfect and provided everything they wanted.
Shortly thereafter, Lauren was asked to run for tax collector in the Town of Franklin. Knowing nothing about taxes, but armed with a new approach to life, she said yes and was elected. With no training at all, the first year on the job was a tough struggle but she learned and managed fine. Two years later she had gained a good deal of confidence and, when asked to run for a combined Town Clerk/tax collector job, said yes again. Duly elected, she worked as town clerk for more than five years. "I loved it," she says, "I like to meet people and make them happy. That's what the job is all about."
By 2004, a growing family had increased demands on family finances. When a better paying job with good health benefits opened up at The Center for Independent Living, she applied and was hired. Just two months later she was promoted to executive director. At that time the organization was temporarily working under the umbrella of the North Country Center for Independence. In 2007, the Department of Education approved grant funding that allowed the Tri-Lakes Center for Independent Living (TLCIL) to become a free-standing organization. They were launched.
"I never thought my disability would be the reason I arrived where I am today," she says. Lauren's goal is to increase the visibility of the TLCIL. A year and a half ago, it moved to its new location on Broadway in Saranac Lake next to the Post Office. "We have more walk-ins now" says Lauren, "something I had hoped would happen." The goal of the organization is to promote equal opportunity for the disabled. "There is still considerable discrimination in the form of lack of access to work places, restaurants and public offices."
What a long and successful journey Lauren has made, though she does not think it was her doing. "God provides us opportunities but people choose whether or not to follow His road signs along the way," She says. The TLCIL is fortunate to have someone with her lifelong experience at the helm.
Based on an interview with Lauren LeFebvre.
Caperton Tissot can be reached at Tissot@SnowyOwlPress.com.