BETHALTO — A community effort is revving forward to provide a disabled mother with independence through the purchase of a wheelchair-accessible van.
Last spring, Marissa Cook of Bethalto was a passenger in an automobile wreck. During the tragedy, the 19-year-old was ejected from the car and suffered multiple injuries. Spinal damage left her paralyzed from the mid-chest down. She was three weeks pregnant at the time.
Marissa spent the next month on a ventilator in an intensive care unit. She underwent surgeries for a collapsed lung, broken ribs, facial fractures and a broken clavicle. In a rehabilitation center she was weaned off breathing tubes.
“It was miserable,” Marissa said. “I was in four hospitals over four months.”
After homecoming, Marissa had the challenge of adapting to her disability while awaiting the arrival of her baby. Her primary caretaker is the father, Austin.
“It’s really different now, taking care of her full time,” he said.
Parents NOW, a support group, also provided Marissa assistance and care. The Bethalto-based organization offers education and baby items to teenage mothers and fathers. Marissa has been attending their meetings since the birth of her 3-year-old son, Drennan.
“They’ve been with me through everything,” she said.
As Marissa worked on further recovery at home, the pregnancy caused concern.
“The baby was at high risk,” said Jamie Jumper, a Parents NOW leader. “We didn’t know how the traumas and medicines would affect her.”
Marissa successfully delivered her daughter Jaela on Nov. 1. The baby girl was just under 7 pounds and healthy.
With a wheelchair, a 3-year-old boy and a new infant, their family car was near capacity. Getting Marissa in and out of the small vehicle presented additional difficulty.
“There is not much room left inside the car,” information from Parents NOW states. “They use a ride service occasionally. The ride has to be scheduled in advance and is subject to long wait times for pick-up and delivery. It’s primarily used for medical appointments, not daily errands or any other needed trips.”
In November, the group arranged for a fundraising effort called Wheels for Marissa around the Great River Road Run in Alton to provide a wheelchair-accessible van for the family. To raise money, supporters were invited to sponsor runners and donate for buttons.
“It was a real community effort by those who have been touched by Marissa’s story,” Jumper explained.
While Parents NOW launched the effort, other help came from a local business. Danny Michel, owner of Winner’s Circle automotive service center in Bethalto, was instrumental in locating a suitable van.
“They asked me to look at a couple of vans,” Michel said. “I started looking on my own and found a good van in O’Fallon, Missouri, that was already set up (for accessibility). It was more economical with the money raised.”
The vehicle has been outfitted with new tires and will be ready for the family after minor repairs.
While the new van will provide easier travel for Marissa’s family, the ultimate goal is to get her driving again. But first, the young woman’s strength needs to be built up. Then her individual needs will be evaluated and a vehicle modification will allow her to operate it with her hands.
“Getting the van will enable Marissa to be a more engaged mother for her young kids,” Jumper said.
Marissa describes the hope of future mobility and independence as a “blessing.”
“It means a lot,” she said. “We’ve been driving by and looking at (the van) four times a week.”
Parents NOW meets the second Friday of every month at Bethalto Christian Church. Doors open at 5 p.m. with classes beginning at 6:45 p.m. Childcare is provided. The group can be reached through the church at (618) 377-9259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.