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Michael Sullivan

The Tennessee Justice Center is honored to recognize Mr. Michael Sullivan and his niece, Rhonda Sullivan, as 2021 caregivers of the year for their love and dedication to his son, Troy Sullivan.

Mr. Sullivan was born and raised in Tennessee and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in Civil Engineering. Soon after graduating, he was accepted for officer training school with the United States Air Force and attended navigator training in California where his son Troy was born. After being stationed in Thailand for a year, Mr. Sullivan and his small family relocated to Holland for his next assignment.

About a year after Troy’s younger brother was born in Holland, Mr. Sullivan and Troy’s mother began to suspect that Troy needed to be assessed by a doctor. After bringing Troy to an army base clinic, an army major informed Troy’s parents that they suspected he had a rare degenerative neurological condition and that he would soon die. However, after more tests, the doctors realized that Troy may have autism instead.

Even so, Mr. Sullivan immediately realized that resources and consistent supports were needed for his son. Mr. Sullivan’s job as an Air Force captain meant that he might need to be away from his family a lot. His next assignment was in New Hampshire where Troy’s sister was born.  After getting an MBA in management at the airbase campus of Golden Gate University, Mr. Sullivan made the big decision to leave the Air Force and move back to Knoxville, Tennessee where he became a part-time flyer for the Tennessee Air Guard and began a Master’s in Social Work program at the University of Tennessee.

Throughout Troy’s childhood, Mr. Sullivan and Troy’s mom worked to create a stable life for Troy and find resources to help him. When Mr. Sullivan and Troy’s mom divorced and they were unable to find a residential placement for Troy near his mother, he moved in with Mr. Sullivan and his younger brother in Knoxville. However, in the fall of 1990, Mr. Sullivan’s unit was activated for Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf War. Just in time, a group home near Troy’s mother in North Carolina had an opening, so Troy moved there. For 27 years, Troy lived in this group home.

Mr. Sullivan’s experience with Troy’s care also opened his heart and mind for other ways to serve. For many years, Mr. Sullivan volunteered for Kiwanis and Lions Club. He also combined his passion for the Russian language and culture and community service by starting a nonprofit called First Ukrainian Ministries. Through this nonprofit, Mr. Sullivan would travel and donate clothing, shoes, and supplies to orphanages in the Ukraine.

In March 2019, Mr. Sullivan and Troy’s sister brought Troy from North Carolina to the family property in rural Hickman County, Tennessee. The family worked hard to transition Troy’s plan of care from North Carolina to Tennessee.

From March 2019 to March 2020, his caregiving was shared between Mr. Sullivan and his niece, Rhonda, Troy’s first cousin. When Mr. Sullivan learned that he was being honored by TJC as a caregiver of the year, he wanted to make sure that Rhonda would be honored as well. “Rhonda and Troy are the same age, so they knew each other as children. Although I knew Rhonda loved Troy and was totally on board to making the transition work, I also knew the difficulties in taking care of someone with autism and that it would not be easy.”

Under Mr. Sullivan and Rhonda’s care, Troy seemed to thrive in his new environment in the country. He would go on hikes, wade in the creek, and help with chores. But there was one primary difficulty the family had to overcome: getting Troy on TennCare. Despite Mr. Sullivan’s research and knowing that Troy was eligible for enrollment, TennCare repeatedly denied his application and appeals. This was when Mr. Sullivan learned of the Tennessee Justice Center. TJC began to advocate for Troy and after many months of representation, he was approved for TennCare, and the State of Tennessee began paying their required portion for his Medicare Part B premiums, which previously were being taken out of Troy’s Social Security benefits.

Mr. Sullivan shared: “Looking back, I can say it was a good idea to bring Troy to Tennessee. But the successful outcome would not have been possible without non-profit organizations, such as the Tennessee Justice Center and particularly; with Rhonda, I had peace of mind knowing that Troy was well taken care of during separation due to the pandemic.”

Photo Credit: Laurie Gibbs

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