Bakersfield – Walk on to the playground at American Elementary School on Verdugo Lane in northwest Bakersfield, and you will see yard aide Debbie Taylor. The 56-year-old can be found chasing balls, breaking up arguments, and keeping order on the campus, just like her younger counterparts. But, unlike the other yard aides, Taylor does her job either leaning on a cane or sitting on a wheelchair.
Taylor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system, on March 6, 2006. But, she feels she was living with the disease several years before she received the diagnosis. “I started having symptoms in high school—vision problems, spots in the eyes. I didn’t know what it was,” she explained. “In college, I kept falling down stairways. In my 30s, I asked the doctor why my legs were hurting so much, and was told… it was just arthritis. In my 40s I went to the doctor not feeling good. Then, I was having hearing trouble and went to a hearing doctor. He said, ‘Don’t worry about your hearing. Go to a neurologist.’ That was on my 50th birthday.”
Six years after her diagnosis, Taylor has a positive outlook on life. “I think God has been really good to me,” she said. “I’ve met people who were younger than me when they started having symptoms and they’re having a lot more difficulty than I am. So, I really don’t have a lot to complain about.” Now, when Taylor is not working at American Elementary School, she is looking for ways to help people with multiple sclerosis who have more difficulty living with the disease.
One of the big ways she does that is through the National MS Society’s “MS Service Days.” At least once a year for the past three years, the Southern California & Nevada Chapter, with the help of funding by Chevron, hosts MS Service Days. An army of volunteers is rounded up to do jobs both big and small—from yard work, cleaning, organizing and painting, to constructing ramps and installing accessible showers and hard flooring. Kim Kotrla, Director for the Chapter’s San Joaquin Valley Region, says Taylor has been instrumental in completing many of the jobs by doing site visits, analyzing costs and repairs or work that needs to be completed, and finding skilled contractors to volunteer their labor. “Ultimately, she has been instrumental in allowing people with MS to live more independently,” Kotrla said.
On top of that volunteer work, she raises money for programs provided by the National MS Society along with research by participating in Walk MS. The reason? She says treatments are not working and, if they are, they’re causing other symptoms. “I’m frustrated that the things that are meant to [slow the progression of the disease] can make your life worse in many ways,” she said, explaining that some medications can cause problems with dry skin, dry mouth and cavities, along with balance issues and liver and sight damage. “If we didn’t have the walk and the money that’s coming in for the walk… then we wouldn’t have the opportunity for scientists and doctors to find better ways to help us cope.”
Now, Taylor has the support of the student body at American Elementary School. Every quarter, the student council holds a fundraiser for community service, and in September they voted to have a “Hat Day” with proceeds going toward Taylor’s Walk MS team, “A Taylor Made Team.” For $1, students were able to wear a hat for a day in October. More than half the student body participated, raising $386 as a school, and bringing Taylor’s fundraising total by the October 27 Walk MS to over $1,200. Brett Gowling, the school’s student body president, said they couldn’t have chosen a better person to benefit from the fundraiser. He said, “She’s just awesome. Definitely, you couldn’t replace her.”