News & Stories

June 9, 2020

A Lifetime Commitment

Not to be ministered unto, but to minister

 

By Debbie Rasure

Photography by Brant Sanderlin

 

 

Taylor Paul Worland (10C) has a gift for shining light into darkness, speaking love into silence and bringing hope to hurting hearts.

As an early intervention specialist with Georgia PINES (Parent Infant Network for Educational Services), Worland teaches parents of infants and toddlers with significant vision or hearing loss – or both – how to communicate with their vulnerable children. But her expertise goes far beyond her one-of-a-kind graduate-degree specialization in deaf-blindness and her status as a national 2010 Helen Keller Fellow, one of only 10 selected annually.

When Worland walks through a family’s door, she brings a deep empathy born of the personal experience of parenting her own child with special needs.

“The connection I have with moms and dads is so real because we’re living life together,” Worland said. “It’s so encouraging for parents to see someone who is excited to meet their child with special needs, someone who is comfortable playing and interacting with them.”

With the ice broken, Worland begins learning as much as she can about the child’s birth history and diagnosis, as well as the parents’ concerns and priorities. Whether the little one has vision or hearing impairment or both, Worland’s primary goal is to help improve communication and increase language acquisition – skills that will prepare the child at age 3 to enter the school system, where additional educational services are available.

Worland works simultaneously with as many as eight West Georgia families in her role with Georgia PINES, a state Department of Education program provided free of charge to families with children from birth to age 3.    

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Worland works with a vision-impaired client's sense of touch using toys and modeling clay.

Finding her calling

Worland came to Berry with a deep faith and a desire to do something with her life that truly matters. The Thomaston, Ga., native had set her sights on a career in medical research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital until she took a class with then-Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Alan Hughes.

Hughes was quick to recognize his student’s passion for the mysteries of the brain, neurology and psychology and her interest in children. Thinking colleague Dr. Michelle Haney would make a great mentor, he introduced them. His instincts were spot on.

“Dr. Haney thinks outside the box,” Worland said. “Her Exceptional Children and Youth class opened my eyes to all the different areas within the special-needs realm where I could make an impact. It taught me to think differently about ways I can help people. It shaped me and pushed me toward where I was supposed to be.”

Haney, who now serves as director of Berry’s Applied Behavioral Analysis/Autism program, remembers Worland as an extraordinary student who would come into her office before class to explore ideas.

“She really had a heart to be an advocate for the most vulnerable,” Haney said. “Of all the students I’ve known, Taylor really has Martha Berry’s spirit. She’s just incredibly compassionate and strong. And she doesn’t back down. When she sees a need, she figures out a way to meet it. My heart is bursting with joy that she chose to work with children with disabilities.”

 

“She really had a heart to be an advocate for the most vulnerable. Of all the students I’ve known, Taylor really has Martha Berry’s spirit.”
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An unexpected awakening 

It is often said that God works in mysterious ways, and in Worland’s life that rings very true. When a class assignment paired her with Matt and Gwen Sirmans of Rome and their 3-year-old daughter, Ivey, who was born with a rare genetic disorder that caused her to be blind and have hearing loss, Worland’s heart opened to something totally unexpected.

The Sirmans welcomed Worland into every aspect of their lives, allowing her to observe Ivey’s therapy and preschool experience, as well as their private family life. Worland saw the triumphs and the struggles that are all part of raising a child with special needs and became very close to the family.

“It changed my life in every way,” Worland recalled. “What could have been a small moment in my college experience became a life-changing moment. I saw it all from a mom’s perspective. When you’re not expecting something like this, and it hits you ... the people, the paperwork, taking care of a child with special needs ... it’s overwhelming. I was able to see a glimpse of everything that Gwen had done for Ivey. She was an incredible role model, and I knew I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be a mom who would do whatever it took for her child.”

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Worland and her husband Craig prepare breakfast for Julie.

 A kindred heart 

As Worland’s love for working with special-needs children grew, so did her friendship with a young man she’d met freshman year, Craig Worland (10c). Although Craig left Berry after that first year to attend the University of Georgia, the two kept in touch, talking “all the time.” By senior year, their sweet friendship had deepened into love.

“I had dated others and so had he, but no one compared to him,” Worland explained. “We had built such a solid foundation as friends that I knew there was no one I wanted to be with more than him, and he felt the same. Everything about us as a couple aligned – our faith, even the fact that God had placed in our hearts the desire to adopt. It felt very ‘meant to be.’”

The years following Worland’s Berry graduation passed in a whirlwind. She earned a Master of Education degree in communicative disorders and education of the deaf/hard-of-hearing with a focus on deaf-blindness at Utah State University. Craig proposed, and the day before they married he was commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps. At their Georgia wedding, Gwen served as Worland’s matron of honor, Ivey as her flower girl and Ivey’s two brothers as ringbearers.

The newlyweds began their life together in Georgia before moving to Quantico, Va., where Worland launched her career, and then to North Carolina. Before Craig left the military for a career in health care administration and they settled for good in Carrollton, Ga., the couple landed at Southern California’s Camp Pendleton for four years. There they felt the timing was right to put the final piece of their family in place.


Leap of faith

The Worlands began their journey into parenthood by acquiring licensure with the San Diego County foster care system. They expressed a desire to help the often overlooked: siblings, older children and those with special needs. Little did they know the challenges – and joys – God had in store.

The first week they were licensed, the couple was asked to consider siblings Joseph, 5, and Julie, 3, who had been in the system, returned to their mother, and removed again for their safety. All totaled, they had been moved 12 times within foster care. Joseph suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was later diagnosed with anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Julie had suffered a traumatic brain injury from Shaken Baby Syndrome. She couldn’t feed herself or speak, had many sensory issues and sleep disturbances, and would bite herself to the point of bleeding when frustrated. Later, she was also diagnosed with autism.

“Adoption is the perfect picture of what God does for us,” she explained. “He takes us into His family and loves us, despite anything we’ve done..."
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If these children were to have any chance in life, it was clear they needed a forever home and parents able to protect and take care of them. The Worlands took a leap of faith and fostered and adopted them, taking care to always keep their birth mother a part of their lives.

Characterizing their first year together as a struggle, Worland said she relied on two things: her faith and her training.

“Adoption is the perfect picture of what God does for us,” she explained. “He takes us into His family and loves us, despite anything we’ve done, anything we’ve been through, anything we bring to the table. It’s the same way with our kids. It’s been really hard, but it continues to blow my mind how much my schooling helps me with Julie. I’m using the same techniques I learned working with children with special needs at Berry and USU. It’s now five years down the road, and we’re beginning to see how God can transform difficult, broken lives into something really beautiful.”

In 2010, the mom from Worland’s “assignment” and now lifelong friend, Gwen, wrote in her blog about the student who had been visiting their home: “Just like my daughter, she is special. I can only dream of the people she will touch in her lifetime. The difference she will make.”

Just 10 years after graduating from Berry, Worland is well on her way to fulfilling Gwen’s dream. We can only imagine what lies ahead.

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