When most of Broadmoor High School’s Class of 1969 last saw Denise Dupont, she was a 4-year-old stricken with cerebral palsy who was just learning to crawl.
After school every day, members of Broadmoor’s Key Club would arrive at Dupont’s home to put her through an intensive program called “patterning” that taught her to use her limbs despite a lack of muscle control caused by her condition.
They spent most of their time teaching her to crawl.
Since then, Dupont not only learned to crawl, but walk. She graduated from high school, and earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of New Orleans, then a master’s in counseling.
Last month, she and her mother had the chance to express their thanks.
“I am a product of many hands and hearts,” Dupont, 47, said in her slow, slurred speech.
On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, about 20 former Key Club members threw a reunion at a Baton Rouge seafood restaurant to catch up with Dupont and her mother, Pat Salatich. The dinner was engineered as a surprise for Salatich, who had recently expressed a desire to see the “kids” again. Most of the members at the reunion were from the class of 1969, while a few graduated in 1970.
“She would never be where she was today if not for that,” Salatich said. “All the patterning and the exercises she did that was a small part of it. It was the interaction with all these people doing the exercises. They got to be friends.”
When Dupont was born, the third of four children in her family, doctors told Salatich to expect her daughter to be “a vegetable.” A lack of oxygen at birth caused the cerebral palsy, which affected the use of her limbs, but not her intellect.
Salatich, who worked as a nurse at Exxon, and her former husband, an optometrist, were proactive and sought ways to improve Dupont’s condition. At a clinic for brain-damaged children in Philadelphia, Salatich learned the Doman-Delacato treatment, which began with patterning, a rhythmic movement of the arms and legs that required three people.
Subsequent steps of the treatment focused on the patient creeping on all fours, then crawling, followed by several other exercises that sought to improve muscle use and the sense of feel.
After she learned the process, Salatich came home and began teaching volunteers. For 13 years, nine volunteers a day assisted with Dupont. Salatich has said 1,500 different people helped over those years.
In 1968, the Broadmoor High Key Club took up Dupont as a project. Every day after school, three students would arrive to “pattern” her.
“We were just earning points for the Key Club and then it wasn’t too long before we realized this is a lot more than earning points,” said Mike Dooley, who traveled from Pensacola, Fla., to attend the reunion. “It became clear to us pretty soon that it was worth 10 times more than anything else we were doing for the Key Club.”
It didn’t take long to “fall in love” with little Denise Dupont, Dooley said, but at first the boys from the club were unsure about their task.
“There was probably, at least on my part, some apprehension,” said Glen Petersen, a Baton Rouge attorney. “But I can assure you that after that there was no apprehension. We were all pretty dedicated to her, and back then I knew that we were, and that’s one thing I’m proud of.”
Over his junior and senior years of high school, Dooley became close to Dupont and her family. In June, he visited them during a trip to Baton Rouge, bringing flowers.
Their afternoons with Dupont taught them important lessons, Dooley said, which they are passing on to their children.
“It taught us at an early age to look beyond the superficial because at that age that is all you’re thinking of, said Dooley, an engineer and part owner of the Sigma Consulting Group companies. “It made it sink into our young boy brains, and we could look past the superficial because we all fell in love with Denise, and we all fell in love with her family.”
While the Doman-Delacato method is not well known today, Salatich and Dupont said the treatments helped her develop socially as well as physically.
“I got to listen to who was dating who, who was going out,” Dupont said. “The next week I would get to find out how did that go? It’s friendship.”
“It brought the world to her because she couldn’t get to the world,” Salatich said.
Other clubs, including the Beta Club and the Keyettes began to help later. Salatich and Petersen said Dupont developed a strong sense of humor over the years along with a worldview that has assisted her through a difficult life.
“This is not your general, run-of-the-mill high school student,” Salatich said. “When you consider the crème de la crème leaves some of themselves with you, you can’t help but be kind of a little ahead of the game.”
Attending public school was a challenge for Dupont. During the 1970s and 1980s, she was attending classes at a time when few people like her received a mainstream education. When she graduated from Broadmoor in 1985 with a 3.0 grade point average, she knew she was going to college. She first attended Delgado Community College in New Orleans, which had a dormitory created for physically handicapped students, then she moved to the University of New Orleans.
She cannot control her hands well enough to write, so an aide would have to help her take notes throughout high school and college. Also, Dupont is legally blind and must use a television screen as a computer monitor and zoom in on text. Without the use of her left hand, which she calls her “lethal weapon,” she types in a slow, deliberate process using her right thumb, but still creates hilarious, poignant emails, Petersen said.
Since graduating with her master’s degree in counseling in 1997, Dupont has worked for nonprofit agencies, including United Cerebral Palsy in New Orleans.
“I got the master’s degree because I wanted to help people,” Dupont said. “I think everyone’s story deserves to be listened to. My story certainly was heard by hundreds of people, so how could I not want to help people?”
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Dupont returned to Baton Rouge and has lived in an apartment behind her mother’s house. She is looking for work, but needs a chance to earn internship hours to become a licensed counselor. She already earned 1,500, but has not gotten the opportunity to finish once she moved back home.
At home, she has an aide who helps to feed her and drive her places.
Over the past few years, she has lost her ability to walk and uses a wheelchair.
Dupont doesn’t become upset at her lot in life. She said she was grateful to see the people who committed to help her at a young age and give her mother a chance to show her gratitude.
“I feel very lucky to have been given the chance for two things: the first, to give my mother what she wanted,” Dupont said after the reunion, “and to have the chance to tell people thank you for giving me wings to fly.”