Helping Hands, Helping Hearts:
The Story of Opportunity Village
(From Chapter 9: The Clients: It's Not All About Work)
One of Opportunity Village's clients who lives at home with family is Thomas Dee Wilcox, sixty-one years old. A well-groomed man of small stature with a shy smile and a quiet demeanor, Wilcox has thinning brown hair that is often covered with a favorite baseball cap. "The Dodgers are my favorite," he beams. As he gets to know you, Wilcox opens up, a common trait among people with mental retardation. As this metamorphosis occurs, a happy, genial man replaces the shy man with the downcast eyes of moments earlier. It's then you see the real Thomas Wilcox, a charming fellow with a quick smile and a ready hug for those he trusts.
Wilcox is unique in another way too. He is Opportunity Village's longest-standing client, and the only living child of one of the CCARC founders still in the program.
Born to Carlyle and Jesma Wilcox in 1945, Thomas was a Down syndrome baby. His parents joined Al and Dessie Bailey and the other parents in founding CCARC, the forerunner of Opportunity Village, in 1954. Tommy, as he was known as a child, attended the Updike School and the Henderson-based Carver Park School, the organization's first two attempts at establishing a private school for their children. When Clark County took over the operation of the Variety School for Handicapped Children and added space for the mentally retarded in 1957, Tommy became part of the first class.
On July 1, 1974, when Opportunity Village changed their focus to provide vocational training for adults, Tommy was one of the first participants. When asked how long he's worked at Opportunity Village, his brow furrows as he thinks. Finally, he replies, "It's been a long, long, long time."
Today, Wilcox lives with his nephew Wayne Leavitt and Leavitt's wife Nita in the house he has lived in for more than ten years. Leavitt, a woodworking teacher at Chaparral High School, is the son of Thomas's late brother-in-law, Max Leavitt. The Leavitts, the Wilcoxes and the Stewarts (the maternal family name of Thomas's sister Jesma "Peaches" Carter) is a large, extended family of Las Vegas pioneers.
In 2002, Wilcox's mother, also named Jesma, passed away at ninety-eight years old, an emotional blow from which he has never fully recovered, according to his sister Peaches Carter. Wilcox and his mom were very close, and worked together at the Mormon Temple one day a week for many years. Since his mother's death, Wilcox has become less communicative, but he still brightens up when a favorite subject arises in the conversation.
When he goes to work at Opportunity Village's West Oakey campus, Wilcox works in the mail center, collating contracts. But as a younger man, he worked at more skilled jobs. He spent many years working in the badge and button manufacturing department, and worked at cording headsets and coiling tubing. Like all clients, Wilcox is re-evaluated on a regular basis to insure he is assigned a job that matches his shifting abilities.
Regardless of the job he's employed in, Wilcox - like almost all Opportunity Village clients - absolutely loves to "go to the office." They love their work, the companionship of their friends, and the loving and helpful support of the staff and volunteers. Every day, Monday through Friday, Wilcox is picked up outside his front door at 7:15 AM by a para-transit bus and taken to work. "It's a very nice ride," he said. At 3:30 PM, he returns home. Every other Friday is a special day; when Wilcox comes home he brings his paycheck with him, and the sheer delight and sense of pride the paycheck represents simply cannot be overstated.
At sixty-one years old, Wilcox is elderly for a person with Down syndrome. Few survive as long. His sister Peaches Carter and chief caregiver Nita Leavitt believe it's their large extended family, with so many people who truly love and respect him that has kept Wilcox going. But there have been signs the past few years that time is creeping up on him. Hernia surgery curtailed his sports activities - for many years he was an avid bowler and Special Olympics participant - and cataract surgery was necessary to improve his sight. And, according to both ladies, his short-term memory is noticeably fading. In what seems to be an unfair case of double jeopardy, most Down syndrome adults will get Alzheimer's disease, and do so much earlier than other people.
So although some of his favorite activities have had to be abandoned, Wilcox still has his likes and dislikes. He collects baseball caps, and country western tapes, and enjoys helping Nita with basic household chores. He still does volunteer work for his ward in the Mormon Church, stuffing pledge envelopes weekly. And he enjoys keeping trim. In the winter, he regularly uses the treadmill machine in his bedroom, and swims frequently in the summertime. As for his dislikes, Wilcox is not a complainer. Like most people with mental retardation, he mostly dislikes an unexpected change in his schedule. Routine is very important.
Late in our visit, Wilcox defied all his ailments, and his age. With a twinkle in his eye, he grabbed Nita Leavitt's hand when a country western tune came on the radio. With the ease and grace of a much younger man, he whirled Leavitt around the floor in a joy-filled dance that had all of us enjoying the moment.
Thomas Dee Wilcox is an exceptional man. As the only person who has spanned the entire history of Opportunity Village and CCARC for more than fifty years, he is unique. He is truly one of God's special children.
(Note: Since the publication of this book, Thomas Wilcox passed away.)