40 years later, giving back to the Elks

Steve Gerace
Teresa Velasco Willoughby, left, presented a check for more than $2,300 to Mount Shasta Elks exalted ruler Sandy Richardson Friday night, April 23, 2010. Teresa said she wanted to give back for the help she received from the Elks nearly 40 years ago, when her son was suffering with muscular dystrophy.

Teresa Velasco Willoughby learned compassion from the joy and heartache she experienced raising a son who suffered with muscular dystrophy.

Friday night she returned to a place that was symbolic of the love she felt for her son, John Eric, the help she received during his short life, and the assistance she offered others in the ensuing years.

Nearly 40 years after John Eric was made an honorary Elk in the Mount Shasta Elks Lodge at age 9, Teresa came back to give back.

She donated $2,346.22 to the Elks with money that was left in a memorial fund her father established in Tulare County after two of his grandsons died of muscular dystrophy.

Teresa said she never forgot the therapist who helped her family beginning in the late 1960s. That help was paid for by the California-Hawaii Elks Major Project, which has been funding services to help children with disabilities at no cost to their families since 1950.

Nor did she ever forget the Mount Shasta Elks, who helped her family at a time when they lived in McCloud.

She said the donation was meant to both “give back and honor my dad at the same time.”

Teresa said her father, Joseph Leal, “came up every year for my son’s birthday. That meant a lot.”

Over the years, money from the Children’s Memorial Fund of Tulare County was used to support a variety of causes, Teresa said. “I wanted this community to have it. Hopefully they’ll find somebody who can use it.”

“We definitely will,” said Mount Shasta Elks exalted ruler Sandy Richardson, who clarified that the money will go back into the major project fund, which continues to pay for therapists in each Elks’ district.

Teresa said some of the understanding she later passed on while working in special education came from the therapist, and he carried John Eric’s coffin after he died just short of his 18th birthday.

Though his body was deteriorating from muscular dystrophy, John Eric’s mind was still sharp, Teresa said. His dying wish was to go to college. To make that happen, Teresa decided she’d go to college, too. For six months they went to school together before John Eric passed in 1979.

“He got better grades than I did,” Teresa recalled fondly Friday night at the Elks Lodge No. 2333 in Mount Shasta.

She stayed in school and went on to work in special education.

“I was good in special education because I understood how the parents felt,” Teresa said. “I?knew how to approach the kids; they just wanted to be accepted like everyone else... I?loved every minute of it.”

Teresa told those gathered in the lodge for dinner Friday night that the therapist provided by the Elks “made a lot of things possible.”

‘Something good comes’

“I believe strongly that out of every negative something good comes,” said RoseMarie Robbins, who attended Friday night’s Elks dinner with Teresa and Teresa’s significant other, Will Andrade. “From the sadness of her losing her son, this (the donation back to the Elks) was set up.”

Teresa said John Eric was diagnosed at age four with muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that progressively weakens a person’s muscles.

She said she had never heard of the disease at that time, but learned a lot about it.

She recalled how the therapist “would help me help (John Eric) do exercises so he could stay active longer.”

“When I got down and was ready to quit, he would help me do what I needed to do,” Teresa said in praise of the therapist.

In the mid-1970s they moved to Redding so John Eric could attend the Buckeye Orthopedic Handicap School. Years later, Teresa worked at the same school.

She said she and her family met Jerry Lewis, the actor and comedian whose telethon fundraisers for the Muscular Dystrophy Association began in 1966. They got involved in MDA fundraising events, including a golf tournament that attracted many celebrities.

The year John Eric died, the Shasta County MDA telethon was dedicated to him and a plaque dated September 15, 1979 was presented to Teresa.

Despite his physical condition, John Eric “always had a brilliant mind,” Teresa said. “He was an artist. He painted and wrote a song titled “Wheel Chair Boogie.”

The song, with lyrics by John Eric and music by Dan Glasgow, was copyrighted in 1977. Teresa showed a copy of it in the scrapbook she brought to the Elks Lodge.

It begins, “There’s been dances for people who can use their legs, but there’s no dances for people who can’t use their legs — they have to use a chair, and take care — So here’s a new dance as you can see, do it in a chair, it’s called the Wheelchair Boogie.”

“He was amazing,” Teresa said of John Eric. “I was lucky to have him. He was always so patient, no matter how much pain he was in.”

At the Elks Lodge in Mount Shasta April 23, 2010, Teresa Velasco Willoughby shows a Muscular Dystrophy Association certificate that was presented to the Children's Memorial Fund of Tulare County, which was established by her father after he lost two grandsons to the disease.