Just after 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving eve, a boy steps off a school bus.
Then he walks – with some help, but not too much – into his West Central home. Once inside, he sits on the couch. He smiles. A little later, he gets into his dad’s car. He gets out of the car. He gets his haircut. He smiles again. He shakes a stranger’s hand.
Doctors said this boy, 15-year-old Daniel Chappell, would never do any of these things. While Chappell doesn’t have one clear diagnosis, he suffers from a number of genetically related health problems.
His initial prognosis had been far more bleak. Someday, maybe if everything went right, Daniel would sit up unassisted, doctors told Micheal Chappell when he became Daniel’s long-term legal guardian in the early 2000s.
“I always say Danny is just a miracle. He’s a miracle child,” said Lee Williams, a longtime friend of Daniel and Micheal. “The fact that he has beat all the odds … is just amazing.”
Knowing Daniel’s history, and his doctors’ low expectations, makes the scene Wednesday night all the more memorable. Daniel and Micheal sit on a couch in their home, listening to “Cat in the Hat” narrated on an iPad. Micheal helps Daniel navigate the colorful scene on the screen. Although Micheal is not legally Daniel’s adoptive parent, he might as well be. He’s lived with and cared for Daniel since the boy was 2 years old. Daniel is legally separated from his biological parents.
Daniel’s health care needs are paid for by Medicaid.
“Where is the fish?” Micheal asks Daniel. “Daniel, can you show me the fish?”
After several false starts, Daniel jabs the animated fish with his finger. Then, switching gears, and apps, Micheal asks Daniel if he wants sweet potatoes for dinner.
Daniel pushes a large red “yes” button repeatedly.
“He loves sweet potatoes,” Micheal said.
“He’s said 14 different words in his life,” he adds.
In fact, the last time Daniel spoke was five years ago, on Thanksgiving. He said, “thank you.”
‘His own place in this community’
While Daniel may not be able to speak, he’s developed a vibrant and engaging personality – a personality that’s connected him with people throughout the Spokane area.
At Dan’s Barber and Styling Salon on Monroe Street, Daniel is a regular.
“Oh! Look who’s here, oh my goodness,” Johannah Flambouras said Wednesday night as Daniel walked in.
Flambouras has been cutting Daniel’s hair for years. She knows how to work with the boy, and Daniel has grown comfortable with her.
“Dad doesn’t have to hold him down as much,” she said of how Daniel’s changed in the years she’s known him.
She’s seen him develop more communication skills and grow comfortable interacting with the world. She smiled thinking of Daniel’s happy dance, which he often launches into as she vacuums the hair from his scalp and neck. That’s his favorite part.
“Daniel has his own identity and his own place in this community,” Micheal said.
Overcoming the odds
Dr. Deb Harper was Daniel’s pediatrician when he was born.
Normally, Harper said, she’s optimistic about children and their ability to overcome serious health and developmental problems.
That was not the case with Daniel. She was one of the doctors who told Micheal that his son would never sit up unassisted.
“I was quite pessimistic about Daniel’s ability to move on,” she said.
She cared for Daniel as an infant, and then, when Micheal started caring for Daniel, she lost track of the boy.
Four years later, she was sitting in her home when Daniel unexpectedly crawled back into her life. One day, Harper’s husband, who is a Realtor, brought another Realtor by their home for a visit. It was Micheal, and Daniel was with him.
The 4-year-old boy was crawling around Harper’s living room floor. Nearly blind, but crawling, on his own. She recognized him as the little boy who, years ago, she’d thought would never sit up.
“I was absolutely knocked silly,” she said. “Part of this is that I was wrong … and part of it is that Micheal Chappell did a hell of a job with this kid.”
Like Harper, those who know and love Daniel are quick to praise Micheal.
“It’s quite a job he took on, bringing that little boy into his life,” said Kevin Gardner, a member of the band Spare Parts. “I couldn’t have done that. I’m not patient enough.”
Micheal met Daniel by chance while working as a Realtor. Daniel was 16 months old, with little mobility and the physical characteristics of an infant. Though they shared no familial bond, Micheal, who had no children of his own, found his mind turning again and again to Daniel, who went by a different name and was in foster care at the time. The foster mother was seeking a permanent home for the boy.
Through repeated encounters, familiarity grew into a mutual attachment until finally Micheal, who was single at the time, made the decision to take full responsibility of the boy. Though he never formally adopted Daniel, he considers him his son.
Gardner first met Daniel about 10 years ago while playing at Madeleine’s Cafe in downtown Spokane. He noticed Micheal and Daniel sitting at the very front table.
“You could tell that he had some physical problems. But the first thing you notice was how patient Micheal was with him,” Gardner said.
Daniel loves Spare Parts, and since that first show years ago, he’s attended many of their concerts. Gardner said in the beginning Daniel didn’t respond much to the music, but over time he’s become more animated and visibly engaged. He’ll start swinging his arms and he gets a “joyful look on his face,” Gardner said.
“It’s just been pretty cool,” he said. “I’ve been so amazed at the changes in that little guy over time.”
Micheal brushes off the praise, instead focusing on Daniel: his resilience and his will to not only survive, but thrive.
“You know he never gives up,” he said. “He looks out and he looks up.”
The learning process
At Salk Middle School, where Daniel goes to school, that resilience is starting to pay off.
Daniel is learning to communicate more of his needs, desires and thoughts, said Kelli Nygren, Daniel’s special education teacher.
“I think my goal as his teacher is to help him show off what he knows,” she said. “But then also to help him interact with the world as fully as he can, as opposed to it just happening to him.”
Nygren helps Daniel learn to communicate, often using an iPad or rudimentary sign language. Two weeks ago Daniel rode a three-wheeled bike on his own for the first time. He’s also recently started doing, with her help, basic addition.
Kelli Nygren / The Spokesman-Review
When asked what Daniel is able to understand, Nygren demurs, pointing to the fact that a year ago Daniel’s accomplishments of the past month would have seemed impossible.
“When he first started with me, did I think he knew how to do addition?” she asked, laughing. “We were just getting him used to eating.”
And, despite his disabilities, Daniel is remarkably similar to other children, Nygren said.
“He can be mischievous. He has a sense of humor. He acts just like a teenage boy in so many ways,” she said. “Kind of goofing around and not really wanting to work. A little bit of attitude (sometimes).”
That’s the little boy Micheal felt moved to help years ago. The one who laughs, goofs around and teases. The curious one, who loves music, sweet potatoes and getting his hair cut. The one who is just like any other 15-year-old.
And, as Daniel develops and learns, the rest of the world is seeing him for who he truly is.
“He’s the driver of his destiny,” Micheal said. “If he can overcome and get going, who are we not to?”
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