Fighting for health in sick economy
Medical disabilities magnify the already daunting task of making ends meet in R.I.
CRANSTON — In the sometimes overwhelming bustle of life inside this family stands a resilient woman. Given her grim upbringing and the many discouraging circumstances of her adult years, Leeann Noonan- Watts easily could have been something or somewhere else. She could have walked away, or turned bitter and complaining. She could be a sorry statistic. But here she is, at age 38, the anchor for her husband, Scott, and four living children. She and her family face multiple medical disabilities, uncertain employment and unrelenting debt, but she keeps humor and perspective.
“Scott and I taught the kids that you don’t need money for everything,” she says. “Money can’t buy you happiness. It can’t buy you love.”
“The most important thing,” says Scott Watts, “is being together.”
On this October afternoon, when Scott has not yet left for his $9-an-hour security-guard job, they are together, literally, in this plain, rented house in this ordinary neighborhood. They have lived here for nearly five years, their longest residence by far in an odyssey of homelessness and multiple moves.
“Having a roof over our head is pretty much most important,” says John Noonan-Silva, 20, the oldest child, a smart and personable young man who laughs easily. Stability is as essential to John as oxygen. Rootlessness compounds his bipolar disorder, Asperger’s syndrome and autism, which began to shape him during infancy.
They sit in their living room on threadbare couches as youngest son Kenney, 9, plays a video game. Daughter Shayna, 13, has a friend visiting; son Bruce, 17, entertains his girlfriend, Brittney Roy. Dog Milo bounces about, ignoring cats Boots and Baby. Colleen Walsh, 42, a longtime friend of Leeann’s who lives here, too, listens in on the conversation, which weaves through the background clatter.
“Scott’s main priority is working to provide for his family,” says Leeann. “I have to be the one who holds everything in place — the one who says, ‘OK, this bill is due, the rent is due, we need gas in the car, we need food in the house, the kids need to eat.’ Essentially, I have a 24/7 job with the kids. And I’m working, too.”
She is indeed, at four part-time jobs that pay marginally but allow flexibility for a higher purpose: managing her children’s medical disabilities, a costly, time-consuming and often stressful commitment beyond the children’s regular school and extracurricular activities. Like his older brother, Bruce has Asperger’s and bipolar disorder, and also oppositional defiance disorder. Shayna has Tourette’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Kenney is learning disabled.
Leeann not only understands these disorders; she can empathize.
She, too, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder –– and with post-traumatic stress disorder, a legacy of a nightmarish childhood...
So begins my latest contribution to The Providence Journal's Reinvent Rhode Island series. Click here to read the full text and see photographs. And for a sidebar on what the experts say, click here.
And you can view a sidebar of this family through this link.