Last year at this time, I wrote about the phenomenal success achieved by Betty Jo Bell in the area of caring for special needs children. Betty grew up in Corsicana, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. D. Joe Bell, but she has spread her talents around very graciously in other towns and states.

For 13 years she was a member of the faculty at the University of Alabama. And she started the early intervention program in Alabama at the behest of the Service Guild of Birmingham in 1984. Last year when I talked to Betty, she had made such an impact with her program that a big 20th anniversary of the Bell Center, named for her, was being planned for May.

This year makes 21 years during which the Bell Center has helped over 600 children at risk for developmental delay to maximize their progress. The center is a nonprofit organization which specializes in helping children from birth to 3 years of age to achieve what many would say is impossible. The children may receive therapy for such conditions as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida or delays from prematurity. At age 3, these children can qualify for state programs. The Bell Center is one of only two charities to receive proceeds from the prestigious Mercedes Marathon, a fund-raiser which expects to raise more than $200,000 from 193 runners.

The Bell Center is impacted by specialists of occupational, physical and speech therapy, special education teachers and nutritionists assisted by about 260 trained volunteers from the Service Guild of Birmingham. Betty remains the program director of the very successful center which she started with only five children who met in a Sunday school room in Trinity United Methodist Church. Now Betty presides over an 11,000-square-foot building into which she moved her project in 1994.

One very important fact to know about the Bell Center is that, even though the fall classes for toddlers are already filled, “the center never turns down infants.” And another fact is that the center receives rave reviews from parents. Twice a week infants are received at the center for an hour. The toddlers have longer two-hour sessions, some twice and some four times each week. The charges are very reasonable — either $75 or $150 a month according to the number of days the children attend. And even with that, scholarship arrangements can be made for those who cannot afford those fees.

The parents are also direct beneficiaries of the resources and support of the center. Many of them confess that, until they discovered the Bell Center, they had no idea what to do about their special needs children. The center was the first place to offer them definitive answers to their questions. It is really a support system for them. The goal of the center is to help children move forward in their development.

To make sure that her service to special needs children is spread around, Betty visits families who are still dealing with a newborn in the hospital. She even accompanies parents with children at the center when they have doctors appointments. Betty knows exactly what questions to ask and other important details of treatment.

One parent, Anna McKinney, whom Betty accompanied to Nashville when McKinney’s son had an appointment with a hand surgeon, declared that Betty was “an angel, that’s all you can say about Betty Bell.”

I find that I must agree with this heartfelt response of a parent who knows firsthand what it is to find herself and her child in need of companionship and caring in a life-changing struggle to make progress possible.

Betty Bell has made care and nurturing of special needs children her life’s work. For 38 of her 65 years, she has built her expertise, and she says she doesn’t have any plans to retire. We can hear where her heart lies when she tells us in her own words, “This is my life. I’ve never been married and don’t have children, so these are my children.” One parent, Cindy Crook, said the Bell Center is “a gift from God,” and she was at that time planning to run in the marathon, having raised $8,000 for the center from her participation.

It is easy to see that the greatest thing about Betty Bell is the love she lavishes on these children and their parents and the love they return to her so abundantly.

Betty, Corsicana is proud to know of your dedication, and we sincerely applaud your efforts!


Gelene Simpson is a Daily Sun columnist. Her column appears Tuesdays.

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