(Tasha Shoffner was an Americorp/VISTA volunteer for ESGH and we are so happy for her! In addition to the Home Of Your Own Program mentioned in the article we also have a broad array of programs including Dynavox clinics, the AT&T Assistive Technology lab for mobile devices, BridgingApps.org, Texas Technology Access Project AT Technology Lab, and can help with evaluations.)
Today’s long-distance couples can stay close in unprecedented ways, thanks to a host of technologies. Yet, it’s still the two people – not the newest convenience – who set the pace of a relationship. Ask Justin Birch and Tasha Shoffner, who met in the summer of 2007 at a business meeting far from their respective homes in Florida and Texas. They started dating two years later. Tasha’s sister, Keri Crosby, first heard of Birch around Valentine’s Day 2010, when he sent Tasha a dozen roses. On New Year’s Eve 2011, Birch popped the question, “Tasha Deanne Shoffner, will you marry me?” at the Crosby home in Katy, Texas. It capped his delivery of a proposal composed from the heart and programmed into his augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device, bringing happy tears from a roomful of friends and relatives whose rowdy cheers escalated when Shoffner accepted.
A Practical Choice
The couple finds technology more necessary than convenient. Birch, 37, has used an AAC device since he lost his ability to speak because of a brain aneurysm he experienced ten years ago. He walks with a cane, uses a wheelchair for long distances or when fatigued, and no longer drives. But his endearing wit hasn’t changed. The lifelong physical disabilities associated with Shoffner’s cerebral palsy are milder, and her speech challenges more profound. Yet she has always been goal-oriented and independent. The oldest child, her younger sisters describe her as nurturing. As a 20-something college student faced with preparing a series of mandatory oral presentations for her social work degree, Shoffner decided to try an AAC device for communication with unfamiliar listeners. Who knew her practical choice would become a link to the love of her life? In August 2007, Birch and Shoffner were working in their hometowns as consumer representatives for DynaVox. They went to the AAC technology company’s Pittsburgh offices for training. The job counseling others considering AAC solutions fit them well. Birch had worked as a licensed practical nurse before his disabilities occurred. Shoffner had earned her MBA and held jobs at human service agencies and as a nanny. “The way they met was just a miracle,” says Birch’s father, Ray. He and his wife, Mary Ellen, accompanied their son on the trip from Cape Coral, Fla., where they lived.
Life Is Short
Back home, Birch kept thinking of Shoffner but feared he had miscopied her email address. His messages to her kept bouncing back. Then one day in October 2009, he saw her name and email address on a message from a mutual friend in Pittsburgh. The time had come to reach out. “I thought, ‘Life is short,’” Birch says, “so I took a chance.” Soon he and Shoffner were emailing and texting for hours each day. Birch took his card-playing buddy, Oscar Gamez, along for the first nearly 900-mile plane trip to Texas. Gamez recalled that the whole way there, Birch typed and stored detailed travel notes into his AAC device. “It was almost like he knew this wasn’t going to be his last trip.” Shoffner, a one-handed driver, picked them up at the Houston airport. Gamez marveled at her skill on the road, even more that Birch and Shoffner felt so at-home together. He still pictures Birch walking the stairs to Shoffner’s apartment, a taxing but enthusiastic climb. Like Birch, Gamez was divorced and knew the reservations that came with starting fresh. He also understood his friend’s unique situation. Birch’s first marriage crumbled under the stress of coping with the major life change that disability brings.
Meanwhile, Shoffner’s family felt their share of protectiveness. “We’re always questioning anybody that comes into her life,” says her sister, Frankie Garrison. “When Justin came around, there was no doubt.” That confidence remains. “They’re going to be each other’s rock, no matter what.” Frank Shoffner liked that Birch asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage during a private conversation. Birch stated his intentions through his device six months before he proposed. Frank says his future son-in-law is the real deal. “They’re compatible,” he says. “They take care of each other.” The wedding probably will be in 2014 in the backyard of the bungalow they recently purchased through the Texas Home of Your Own program of Easter Seals Greater Houston. The group provides down-payment assistance to qualified first-time buyers with disabilities. Shoffner looks forward to being given away by her father, then escorted by her new husband on a walkway surrounded by the waterfall, pond and pretty landscaping at their new home. Birch’s father, ordained through an online ministry, will perform the ceremony. “They want it to be small and quaint,” Garrison says, echoing the consensus that simplicity is the couple’s goal. “I think they’re just getting their bearings.”
A Fairy Tale
Until the big day, they’ll undoubtedly be busy. Shoffner takes Birch for physical and occupational therapy several times weekly. They follow her young nephew’s traveling baseball team and tend to arrive quickly when family members need help. Birch takes the lead when they Skype with his parents, who live in Pennsylvania now. He chats spontaneously through his device or clarifies what Shoffner says when they don’t understand her speech. Shoffner’s dad just moved from Austin, Texas, to Seattle, so there is someone else to Skype with. Birch strategizes carefully when he wants to do special things for Shoffner, shopping online or collaborating with her sisters, as when they planned her surprise 40th birthday party last fall. Birch has gained new card partners in his future brothers-in-law. By all accounts, he makes Shoffner laugh. So do Popeye and Olives, his pet cockatiels. “It’s a fairy tale,” says Gamez, who remarried last August.”With all their struggles, they met up. It was meant to be.”
To see a video of Justin Birch’s proposal to Tasha Shoffner, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exQMUGqD31E