SALEM, Va. – A Salem woman who has defended people with special abilities her entire life is continuing her fight through a children’s book inspired by her son’s resilient journey.
Debra Cassell has always had a heart for people with special needs since she was a child.
“Growing up with my dad, he was the police chief of Fairfax and they would take care of foster kids with special needs,” Cassell said. “My brother, Eddie, was adopted. He had cerebral palsy.”
She said as a child, she could remember how people would treat him.
“I just remember at a young age, how people were treated differently,” Cassell said. “Sometimes he would drool or walked a little different because of his legs and you would see people staring. He was shunned and they would tell him to get away and it hurt my heart and I would notice how they would do it to other people.”
That need to make a difference carried over into adulthood for Cassell.
“My first degree was in tourism but when I got married, I couldn’t travel to do that career but then it hit me that I wanted to be a special education teacher,” she said. “It has just always been a passion of mine and I always say I am an advocate first and a teacher second. I take care of the kids to make sure they know how special they really are.”
Cassell is now a special education teacher at Rivermont Schools, doing early childhood special education.
“In Franklin County, I did 3-4-year-olds and most were non-verbal kids so we would have picture cards and play,” she said. “We would have fun through active learning and sorting and counting and social skills.”
Cassell said she had her son, Sam, after she was teaching for five years.
She believes this entire chapter of her teaching prepared her for her journey as a parent with a child who has special abilities.
Sam was born three months early.
“Sweet Sam is my heart,” she said. “We tried to get pregnant so many times and had lots and lots and lots of miscarriages. Then they discovered that I was at the end of my egg reserve so we to IVF.”
After that difficult journey, Cassell learned that she was blessed with twins.
“A boy and a girl,” she said. “It was the most amazing thing. I thought I hit the lottery and everything seemed great with the pregnancy.”
Unfortunately and abruptly, something went wrong one day.
Cassell was rushed to have an emergency C-section.
“Yeah, it was horrible,” Cassell said. “I just remember lying there naked and being cut open and I remember saying, ‘What is going on?’ Sam was born a pound and 13 ounces and Allison was a little more. They were born 26 weeks…25. They could both fit in your hand and Sam had hair all over him. He looked like an old man. That is what they looked like. When we went to visit Allison, something was wrong I knew. She looked like, bloated.”
Sadly, Allison was suffering from NEC.
“Her machine kept going off more than normal and she developed NEC which is an intestinal bacteria,” Cassell said. “They did surgery when she was only two pounds and the doctor had to cut out part of her intestines and thought he got it all out. He was so sweaty working to save her. Sadly, we went in the next day and she was bloated again and they found out that they didn’t get it all.”
Allison passed away 11 days later.
“We were there when she passed away. They were working on her doing CPR. They asked, ‘Do you want us to keep going?’ and we were like, ‘Yes, keep going. Keep trying,’” she said as she began to cry.
Cassell had Allison cremated in an angel urn.
Meanwhile, Sam miraculously survived and fought for three months. It was a fight Cassell knew she had to continue for him as a life of complications would follow.
“He got to come home when he was four pounds,” Cassell said. “When he came home, I stayed home from teaching for two and half years. We were so overprotective of his health. He had to wear a helmet for two years and he would cry and cry because it was really tight, but it was to form his head like it was supposed to be.”
At no fault of his own, Sam faced struggles mentally, physically, and socially.
“He was a very energetic little boy,” Cassell said. “We found out he had ADHD, and sensory degradation disorder. It is related to autism, but his social skills are not as impaired as autistic kids are. And he always had fine motor delays. We did physical therapy, occupational therapy. Speech. Everything you could possibly have, he would have since birth with them coming to the house.”
Sam eventually started school at two and a half years old and eventually Cassell said she realized his biggest struggles in the classroom setting.
“Noises affected him,” she said. “The room was small with a lot of kids there, so he was overloaded with his sensory input system. He couldn’t focus on anything. He would just be running and running. And then when people would get in his space, he would just push them.”
During that time, Cassell said it was a goal of hers to have a little girl also, so she adopted Sam’s sister Emily from South Korea two years after having Sam.
Cassell said with love and patience and the right resources, Sam ultimately grew out of a lot of the challenges he faced.
“He’s like A-B Honor roll and exempt from all of his exams no thanks to mommy for English,” she laughed. “He is a great sweet kid. He’s taller than I am. He always wanted to do back-to-back growing up and finally, he is back-to-back taller than I am.”
Sam is now 16 and has plans to become a lawyer in the Navy.
Despite overcoming his challenges, Sam unfortunately has been the target of bullying since he was in preschool.
“Sam has been bullied a lot which I have to fight for all the time, and it really hurts my heart,” Cassell said. “I have talked to school administrators on multiple occasions. They know my name because they know I am going to fight for Sam. He fought to live for three months. There is no way that I am not going to fight for my son…not a chance.”
Cassell said that Sam is not the only child she will fight for.
“When I did my graduation for my parents, they know me and that I am a fighter for kids,” she said. “I will fight for their kids like they are my own because they are the innocent ones and they need our help the most. Based on me being a teacher and being Sam’s mom, I know you are going to have to fight extra hard for your kids.”
She said the sad truth is that people who bully people with special needs tend to get away with it.
“A lot of kids with special needs don’t tell you they are being bullied especially the non-verbal,” Cassell said. “They can’t tell you if someone does something wrong and that is a very very sad thing. As a parent, you got to go with what you know and what your gut is telling you and you have to believe your child because so many people will spin it in a different direction. You need to stay in close contact with your child’s heart and feelings and let them know you are a safe spot and that you will believe them.”
Because of this initiative, Cassell wrote a children’s book entitled, ‘Sammie the Salmon.’
“Salmon have to swim upstream and it is harder so Sammie the Salmon because Sam has to fight and swim…life is going to be tougher for him,” she said. “When I was going back to teaching, I was terrified to leave Sam with anybody. Then this project just came to me. The words started coming to me and I grabbed a pad and started writing this story and then I put it away. Then I found out he had juvenile arthritis and even grownups were talking about him which was horrible, so I hired an artist to illustrate this book and had it published on Amazon.”
She said she wrote this book to make Sam proud and to show how great of a kid he truly is.
“The book is about what you feel when you take your child home,” she said. “It was scary because at the hospital you have doctors to help take care of them. He was my first child and taking him home at four pounds, I worried. So like with Sam, the book is about this tiny salmon that they brought home and how he started to grow and how overprotective the parents were of him, for good reason, but the little salmon wanted to get some freedom so he was like please let me go see the world and eventually that is what the end of the book is.”
Both Cassell and Sam recently visited elementary schools to read his symbolic story as a way to engage with children about special abilities and the importance of lifting people up through their challenges.
“We talked to them about Sam’s story and how he was bullied and we talked about prematurity and some of the kids related with their family members,” Cassell said. “I believe through my brother and through Sam and being a teacher. The connection. If we could teach kids at a young age why people act differently because of their special abilities, then there won’t be as much bullying to these kids.”
From there, Cassell started “Messages for Miracles” where the children inspired by Sam’s story write words or draw pictures of encouragement to go on walls of NICUs to help other struggling families.
“They can see these words of encouragement like, ‘Your baby is beautiful!’ from children,” Cassell said. I know every day when I came out for three months if I saw those beautiful bright colorful cards, that would have helped get my mind off the pain I was in and it would give me hope knowing there is so many people praying for my child.”
Her goal is to have these sweet messages in every hospital across the United States.
“This is so whenever a baby gets discharged, or not sadly, they can take a picture off the wall home as a good memory in a way,” she said. “But I just believe, all the pain we have been through, I really feel like this is God’s purpose because this is something that is driving me. You feel like this is supposed to do. Messages for Miracle and ideas for pictures just came to me.”
In the meantime, Cassell, Sam, and Emily will continue to set the example of what it means to have strength, boldness, and how to triumph in life through any obstacle.
“My motto is, ‘Always believe in miracles,’” she said. “Don’t give up. I really think with love, nurturing, and care, God will overcome. So just stick with it and believe and have faith.”