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Their Daughter’s Keepers

by Published on
photo courtesy Joe Van Wyk
Wally and Peggy Van Wyk

Tyrant’s Foes—Wally and Peggy Van Wyk

Wally and Peggy Van Wyk adopted their daughter Laura in 1958. Raising her was difficult from the beginning. Because of complications during birth, Laura was afflicted with cerebral palsy and damaged vision and she couldn’t walk for two years. But the bigger challenges came when the Van Wyks tried to enroll Laura in first grade. They lived in Harlingen then, and the schools couldn’t accommodate
children with intellectual disabilities.

School officials told Peggy Van Wyk that there were simply no programs for children like Laura. The family created its own. Using a state grant, the Van Wyks helped form a program for grade-school children with brain injuries. Peggy had to recruit the special-education teacher and find nine other students to join Laura in the class. That worked for a few years, but when Laura was ready for junior high, there were simply no options.

Eventually, they discovered the Mary Lee Foundation, which runs a residential facility in Austin for people with intellectual disabilities and brain injuries, among others. At Mary Lee, Laura receives the 24-hour care she needs, but also enjoys the freedom of a community-based group home. She’s lived there nearly 40 years and developed lifelong friendships with other residents. “She’s happy. She can do a lot of things. Now she’s got a boyfriend, and he’s there at the facility. She went to a best buddy dance at the UT ballroom last night. She’s got a life.”

But state budget cuts threaten the life that Laura, now 53, has enjoyed at Mary Lee. The facility, like most other community homes for people with disabilities, is funded through Medicaid. With Texas facing a $23 billion budget shortfall, state lawmakers have proposed slashing Medicaid rates by more than 30 percent. A reduction that large could put many community homes—including Mary Lee—out of business. It’s not clear where many residents would go or how they would live.

Now in their 80s, Peggy and Wally Van Wyk are still advocating for their daughter. They were among hundreds of Texans who traveled to the Capitol in February to testify at budget hearings, pleading with lawmakers not to shutter their group homes.

At a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Feb. 2, the Van Wyks’ testimony about Laura left an impression on Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan), the Senate’s chief budget writer. Ogden read aloud to his fellow senators from a letter in which the Van Wyks detailed all they’d done to care for Laura. “Fifty-three years later, my hat’s off to y’all because you’re still fighting for her,” Ogden told them. “We’ll do our best to make sure we don’t harm her.”

It’s still not clear how deep the budget cuts will be and if organizations like the Mary Lee Foundation will survive. But the Van Wyks are holding on to hope. “I’m sure they’re going to get cut,” Wally says. “It’s just a question of whether it’s so severe that they can’t continue. We’re just sweating it out.” 

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.