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Cary Family Wants Daughter To Be Treated Like An Individual, Not A Syndrome

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CARY — Many families in the Triangle are raising children with special needs, but one family is taking extra steps to make sure their daughter is treated like a person and not a syndrome.

To her peers in her special education classroom at Cary Elementary School, nine-year-old Melissa Woodhouse is a normal girl.

She learns the days of the week, the months of the year and letters of the alphabet. But when Melissa leaves the classroom, the world judges her differently, not on her abilities, but on her genetic make-up.

Melissa was born with Smith-Magenis Syndrome (SMS), a rare developmental disorder marked by speech problems, hyperactivity and aggressive behavior.

"The fact she wasn't reaching any of the milestones that you see other babies developing; sitting up at six months or walking at age one. Those kinds of things, we weren't seeing with Melissa," says Paula Woodhouse, Melissa's mother.

Paula says her daughter's diagnosis was overwhelming.

"You went through grief. I mean you went through a whole series of emotions. It was very stressful on our marriage," Paula says.

Once they got over the shock, the Woodhouses began to research their daughter's condition. They joined a parent support group and began to fight for Melissa's rights.

"It takes a lot of time, a lot of energy and a lot of overcoming any inhibitions you might have," Paula says. "We fight for everything. That is why she has an one-on-one aid in the school. We were not about to back down from that."

The Woodhouses were not about to turn down assistance from the county either. They learned Melissa was entitled to home care.

"We have someone come into our home and help us with Melissa from the time she's home from school until the time she goes to sleep at night," Paula says.

The extra pair of hands allows the Woodhouses to spend quality time with Melissa's two younger sisters: Morgan and Maggie.

"My two little ones are with me all day long by themselves. I take them to the park, and I take them to McDonalds," Paula says. I do all the things you're supposed to do as a stay-at-home mom, and we have a great time, so I do focus my energies on them during the day."

The Woodhouses say they have battled long and hard to make sure Melissa is seen as a person rather than a syndrome.

"I love the people who say I'll take Melissa for awhile, and they come back and have a whole new appreciation for what we do," says Barry Woodhouse, Melissa's father. "I know why sometimes you come to church, your eyes are red and you look like you've not slept. That's exactly what happens."

The Woodhouses are now at a point where they can talk about times with Melissa that are joyful, humorous and never boring. They say that they have never considered her a burden.

"No, I don't consider it a burden, because she has made us all better people. There is no doubt about it," Paula says. "Everyone in my family and his family would be the first to tell you that we have learned so much from Melissa. She has blessed our lives."

The Woodhouses are committed to helping other families who have children with disabilities. This year, they started the Special Needs Ministry at their church as a means of supporting other parents and letting them know they are not alone.