MUSCLE SHOALS, Ala. (AP) — Most people are nervous about their first flight aboard an airplane, but not Haylee Cain Emens.
Born with cerebral palsy, the 25-year-old Tuscumbia woman has already taken some life-altering journeys that few will ever experience. At the age of 21, she was confined to a nursing home because her aging grandfather could no longer care for her, and there were no other family members who could take his place. Alabama had no provisions or facilities for people in her position at that time, so a nursing home was all that was available to her.
The TimesDaily published a story about her plight in April 2010, and it stunned Judson and Donna Emens.
"People this age should not have to lie in nursing homes with 90 year olds the rest of their lives," Judson Emens said on a recent Saturday morning at Northwest Alabama Regional Airport, as Haylee prepared for her flight. "Donna and I talked it over, and we took a leap of faith."
That leap led to the Emenses bringing Haylee home to live with them and eventually adopting her as their own daughter. They also have a younger daughter, Nadia.
The flight marked the anniversary of Haylee becoming a part of their family.
Since she has little mobility outside her wheelchair, Haylee was lifted into the passenger seat of Don Wilson's single-engine plane with the help a crane. Rodney Methvin, the crane owner, joked with her that this was only the second time he had lifted someone into an airplane.
"That's OK," Haylee said. "You can practice with me any time."
A big smile never left her face as she settled into the plane and headphones were placed on her to communicate with Wilson, a Florence dentist who offered his plane for the flight. Donna Emens and Wilson's wife, Sadrica, accompanied them.
"I'm excited, and a little nervous, but I'm ready to go," Haylee said as the seatbelt was strapped on. "This is the anniversary of when I came to live with Mom and Dad."
Donna asked her what they call that anniversary day.
"Got ya day," she replied.
As the plane taxied down the runway for takeoff, Judson Emens reflected on the new family they have created together.
"It's a difficult job, but it's the best job we've ever had," he said. "When we first got her, she really liked the lounge chair in the living room. She said it was the most comfortable chair she had ever been in. The living room became her bedroom until we added another room with a bath and a deck."
Local businesses and individuals stepped up to help obtain special equipment to make Haylee more comfortable and to help the Emenses take care of her.
"She's come a long way emotionally in four years," Emens said. "She thinks and behaves like an adult."
When Donna Emens saw Haylee's picture in the newspaper in the April 2010 article, she recognized her as one of the young students she worked with in the Tuscumbia Head Start program. She had not seen her for years because Haylee's family had moved out of state.
Judson Emens said Haylee has a friend in Birmingham who also has cerebral palsy she visits from time to time. Haylee has also been a bride's maid in a wedding with a friend. He also said Haylee has become intensely interested in Tuscumbia native Helen Keller, who became deaf, blind and mute at an early age and went to become a world renowned advocate for people with disabilities.
When the plane landed and the engine was shut down, Wilson opened the door and Haylee was asked if she enjoyed the flight.
"I want one of these for Christmas," she said. "I'm going to tell my best friend, who also has CP, that she needs to try it. She would love it.
"This has been such a great day," she said. "I'm so blessed to have people who would do this."
With that, Judson and family friend Joe Fulmer climbed aboard the plane with Haylee and they were off for another flight over the Shoals and the Tennessee River.
Information from: TimesDaily, http://www.timesdaily.com/