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It’s often said that “to die well” is a blessing. One man with special needs in the Ozarks received that blessing recently. And as KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson reports, his community, in turn, was equally blessed by the experience.
Inside a one-story brick house on the outskirts of West Plains, a 53-year-old man rests facing the floor-to-ceiling glass door, watching the birds enjoy their birdfeeders. As an oxygen machine pumps away, a hospice nurse massages his legs while another woman strokes his head and recalls fond memories.
“It’s a beautiful day in the Ozarks,” she says quietly.
Ricky Savage was diagnosed with terminal cancer on Christmas night. He’s lived with Hunter Syndrome, which affects his brain storage function. Because of his behavioral and physical disabilities, he lives here: at Oakwood Life Sharing, an affiliate of the international organization Camphill. The woman stroking Ricky’s head is executive director, Linda Michaels.
“We live together with special needs people. So-called ‘normal’ families live together with our friends. We have large organic gardens. We do a lot of our own food. We find that living with the special needs people, that keeps our communities together. Because they have qualities we don’t have – social qualities. They’re loving. They’re forgiving. They’re fun. And that buffer helps keep all of us together,” Michaels said.
Oakwood is a non-profit organization that works with Missouri’s Department of Mental Health. It operates as one of the organizations under OzSBI, the Ozarks Small Business Incubator. Michaels says special needs residents like Ricky are the best among us at building community.
“An example of that is when he first came here, I took Ricky over to the bank to open a bank account. I asked Joyce [James], the president, if she would greet him. And she was wonderful. She invited him into the office, gave him a hat, congratulated him on his bank account, and he walked away saying, ‘I’m an important man,” Michaels said.
“And one time on Christmas Eve, they were all here at 7:00 in the morning with antlers and Christmas hats to give everybody their Christmas presents…the bank president and the employees were here,” Michaels said.
When Ricky first arrived, Michaels says he was in a psychotic depression. His parents had dropped him off with about one day’s notice. His mother had advanced Alzheimer’s Disease, and his dad had suffered a second stroke.
“When he came to us, he was about 60 pounds overweight, and he was in a wheelchair, and he was on quite a few medications. And the structured program we have, we were able to get Ricky off of all his medications,” Michaels said.
Soon, he was out of the wheelchair, and walking. He gave presentations on the radio, and charmed the Mayor, whom he visited on his birthday every year.
"And one of those times, his 50th birthday, [the mayor] gave him this golden key that Ricky believed was the key to Sonic and McDonalds and every place in town where you could get ice cream and treats...and the two of them would always say, 'It's a beautiful day in the Ozarks,'" Michael said.
He attended Chamber of Commerce meetings, and learned about his Native American heritage. He was an athlete in the Special Olympics, and he went to Branson to enjoy country music shows.
All of his medical needs were provided by Medicaid, because of his disabilities. Still, Ricky would only receive $300 to cover any funeral or burial expenses. So, his friends at Oakwood decided to make his last days as special as possible.
Chris Kimball has lived here for four years. He’s just helped build Ricky’s casket from raw materials.
“This whole experience, you know, is basically new to me. When my grandpa passed away back in 2001 or 2002, I never actually really cried – not really cried, where it hurts deep down. That’s basically how much Ricky means to me: when I heard all this bad news, and all this stuff that was going on, I was basically…I was crying,” Kimball said.
Kimball also made cards and butterfly pictures for Ricky. The residents planned a memorial service, and Ricky chose which song and readings he wanted at his funeral. He requested that roses and tulips be planted in memory of him in the butterfly garden he kept.
A few days after we visited Ricky, his body finally submitted to the cancer. He died on the 11th anniversary of the day he arrived at Oakwood—a day he always celebrated. Ricky was buried in a country cemetery with Linda, Chris, and his other friends looking on, roses and tulips on his casket. Out of respect for them and his family, we delayed airing this story for a month.
Ricky's sister and legal guardian, Roxann Scarlett, told us she wanted Ricky's story to be shared on the radio, and that he would have, too. Although she lives out of state, she's been involved in all major decisions, including the one to bring him to Oakwood. She told us that before Ricky came to Oakwood, he sat in front of a TV all day. At Oakwood, he became a social butterfly, working with horses and reading TIME magazine. He took road trips and engaged in lively political discussions.
“His sister, when she wrote, said that in the time he’s been here, he’s been able to blossom into the person he really is,” Michaels said.
Even though Ricky has passed on, his sister and caretakers say they’re confident of one thing: when he hears this radio piece, he’ll be grinning his trademark grin and saying, “It’s a beautiful day in the Ozarks.”
For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.