Within the first 24 hours after her third son Graham was born with Down syndrome, Jane Lamb received several calls from people at her church. Their conversations all led to the same question, “Have you heard of The Bell Center?”
This was in 2005. Jane and her husband had moved to Homewood a year prior, and she had heard of The Bell Center through a friend. As a speech-language pathologist, she understood to an extent what the center did, but it wasn’t until she enrolled her two-week-old son into its programs that she came to fully understand its greater purpose.
Located off of Central Avenue in Homewood, The Bell Center provides early intervention services—including speech-language pathology, physical therapy, occupational therapy and special education—to children, birth to 3 years old, with a range of needs and abilities.
Founded in 1984 by Betty Bell and the Service Guild of Birmingham, The Bell Center today serves more than 100 children each year. While many in Homewood know of The Bell Center and the services it provides, parents like Jane can tell us of why The Bell Center should be considered a jewel in Homewood’s crown—from its level of care that goes beyond a child’s physical needs to the support its unique community fosters.
Last February, Katie Hollis gave birth to her third child, Hank. Despite arriving a few weeks early, nothing in her pregnancy or delivery alerted Katie and her husband that something was wrong. But few months later, Hank was acting sick. Thinking it was a cold, Katie took him to the doctor, but after they arrived, the doctor recommended Katie take Hank to the emergency room.
“Again, I just thought he was fighting some sort of infection. I thought they would give us antibiotics and fluids, and we would be on our way,” she says.
But things quickly escalated. While in the emergency room, Hank began to experience seizures. A CT scan showed brain injuries, but they did not know what caused them. Hank was admitted to Children’s of Alabama, where they remained for a month. “Doctors finally diagnosed him with congenital toxoplasmosis, which is a rare infection he caught when I was pregnant with him. If affects his eye sight, his brain and, in turn, his development,” Katie says.
Having attended Samford University’s Ida Moffett School of Nursing, Katie had been to The Bell Center before—during her pediatric clinical rotation. With this experience, she knew it was where she wanted her son to be. Hank began therapy at the age of 3 months old.
“Entering this environment for the first time is hard, because I never knew this was going to be something I would have to do,” she says. “We had no idea that something was wrong with Hank when he was born, but The Bell Center definitely made the transition a little easier.”
Today, Hank is approaching his first birthday. “It’s hard to be a special needs parent, but The Bell Center makes it so much easier because they genuinely care,” Katie says. “They are extraordinarily positive. They don’t treat Hank like he has a disability. Instead, they always look for his potential. Even if he screamed through the whole session—because he is still a baby—they always find a positive thing to say.”
While the state of Alabama does provide early intervention services for children that qualify, The Bell Center is unique because as a private entity they can accept children who may not qualify for the state programs. And while the state’s services provide the convenience of coming to a family’s home, The Bell Center offers all of its services in the same location, which has created a unique community of parents, grandparents, siblings and friends that care and support one another.
For Jane, she has been the beneficiary of this community in more ways than one. “I met one of my closest friends on the first day we visited the Bell Center, and here we are—12 years later—still very close. Our kids have grown up together, and next year, they will transition into the sixth grade together.”
Today, Jane works at The Bell Center, a job she started right as her son was turning 3 years old and transitioning into the Homewood school system. With her office located right outside of one of the center’s larger classrooms, she is a witness to The Bell Center’s community at work.
“The community here is huge,” she says. “These support groups develop naturally with parents just dropping off their kids and standing in the hallway talking to each other. I often just sit here and listen to these friendships develop.”
For Jennifer Andress, a longtime Homewood resident and now city council member, it has been more than a decade since her two boys went to The Bell Center, but she still recalls how her first meeting with Betty Bell solidified not only their relationship but her commitment to the center.
Doctors diagnosed Jennifer’s oldest son with a hearing impairment when he was 11 months old. “It was a very overwhelming time—to hear that your son is not perfect, that he is moderately to severely hearing impaired. Plus, I was pregnant, and they told me his condition was genetic,” Jennifer says.
Her family’s pediatrician recommended The Bell Center, and she quickly made contact and scheduled a meeting with Betty Bell. Although Jennifer was born in Birmingham, she grew up in Texas, and she is huge fan of the Texas Longhorns. “Going into this meeting, I was so overwhelmed. But when I walked in the door and saw Betty’s office was burnt orange, covered in Longhorn gear, I knew I was in the right place at the right time. God sent me there, and I’m still a volunteer to this day,” she says.
Jennifer ended up enrolling both of her sons at The Bell Center, and though they did not stay long, her dedication to the center, like so many of its volunteers, has never wavered. “As a parent, what you learn right away is that you have community there to help you,” she says. “You learn not to feel sorry for yourself because no one feels sorry for anyone. It’s amazing.
“Of course, you have those moments when you think, ‘This is not what I signed up for,’ but then you show up and you realized everyone there is so happy and wonderful, providing you encouragement every step of the way.”
Be a BellRunner
For more than a decade, The Bell Center has partnered with Birmingham’s Mercedes Marathon to raise money for the center and the children it serves. The Bellrunners, as they call themselves, run in honor of a child currently enrolled at The Bell Center, wearing a photo of that child during the race.
Over time, this program has grown to include more than 300 participants in the 5K, half marathon, full marathon and five-person marathon relay teams. Consider participating in 2019!