The Tennessee Justice Center is honored to recognize Mrs. Michelle Clarke, as a 2022 Mother of the year for her love and dedication to her daughter, Makayla Clarke.
Mrs. Clarke is originally from Jacksonville, Florida. Though it was crazy at first, Mrs. Clarke travelled the world because of her husband’s military service before settling down in Tennessee in 1993. She would venture to say that she has an international family. Two of her three children had the excitement of being born abroad because of where he was stationed – one in Korea, one in Germany, and one in the United States. When they returned to the states Mr. Clarke was stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky and when he retired, they decided to stay nearby in Tennessee. Now, one of their sons followed in his dad’s footsteps, joining the military and is stationed in Germany with his young family.
Mrs. Clarke has always loved children and she is always willing to help raise any child that comes to stay with five children, raising her godson and various nieces and nephews, and taking care of many grandbabies, she always has someone to love on.
The love and care she amplifies has become an inspiration to so many children. Many years ago, she was a daycare teacher and school van driver, she taught children from kindergarten to fifth grade. Many of these children and parents would see her out and about and would come up and give her a hug and express how much they appreciate the love and care she gave and the difference she has made in their lives. She says it makes her heart happy to see the impact and accomplishments of so many of her kids. Mrs. Clarke says, “Showing love, care and support will do wonders in the life of a child.” She calls these kids her babies too. One of her daycare kids is a UPS driver, one works at Walmart, McDonalds and Kroger, one is a physical ed teacher, one is in Korea teaching English and a few just went into the military. “It is awesome to see their accomplishments and the joy when they see me.”
When a young mother in their church asked if they would be two of her three children’s godparents they readily agreed. Sadly, this young mother had difficulties and passed away. The Clarkes volunteered to foster their godchildren and their sibling – Makayla. The Clarkes knew Makayla had complex medical needs and may be a challenge to take care of, but they knew the importance of keeping the siblings together, especially after losing their only parent.
Makayla has cerebral palsy, developmental delays, and an extensive list of comorbidities. “It would take a whole page” to list explained Mrs. Clarke. She is nonverbal and total dependent. When she was first placed with the Clarkes through foster care, the state provided everything that Makayla needed through TennCare to keep her as healthy as possible, and she was eventually enrolled in the DIDD waiver program.
The Clarkes soon fell in love with her and formally adopted her and her sister. “Makayla is a very jolly child. Everyone loves her to death. She is sweet as can be and everyone calls her an angel.” But as Makayla got older and her needs became greater, the Clarkes started seeing cuts in her healthcare services. Makayla also experienced a high turnover of caregivers which was difficult for her and the family to adjust to. There were long stretches of time she went without nurses or any home care services. Because she requires to have a nurse with her to attend school, and the school refuses to provide a nurse for her, Makayla has also had to be homeschooled for long stretches of time. This has been hard for Makayla because she absolutely loves going to school.
Mrs. Clarke worked at a pain management clinic but when Makayla’s needs became too great and she had to take too many days off work, Mrs. Clarke made the hard decision to quit her job and care for Makayla because there was not enough support from TennCare. Over the years, Mrs. Clarke had to be Makayla’s full-time, unpaid nurse, unpaid teacher and unpaid home caregiver, attending to Makayla 24/7.
In 2020 Mrs. Clarke discovered the Tennessee Justice Center and began to conquer her fear of confrontation by participating in the administrative and judicial process to advocate for Makayla. Makayla and her family want her to stay at home but without adequate support to remain safely at home she faces the risk of institutionalization. Through TJC Mrs. Clarke has also advocated that the TennCare program should not be a block grant because of the risks to the health and wellbeing for enrollees like her daughter.
After working with TJC and with help from Makayla’s ISC, Mrs. Clarke saw some progress in her daughter’s home care hours. Though she still fights to get all of Makayla’s services, she is glad that TJC came into the picture. It has been a God send to have hired caregivers now that are willing and love what they are doing.
Makayla is a child that emits joy and makes people feel good just looking at her smile. Mrs. Clarke is sad that she can’t just be a mom to Makayla. Though she has now got the teenage stuff going on – sometimes rolling her eyes or pretending to sleep when she doesn’t want to do something – but if someone calls her out on it, she just laughs and laughs, which of course makes everyone laugh with her. She has her favorite people like one aunt and uncle and cousin and now her PA. She will just light up like a butterfly if she sees them. She loves being in groups and at the center of attention. She just brings people together and at church they call her the queen.
Mrs. Clarke is grateful for her joyful child but hopes that with more supports she can maybe one day return to school and become an RN. She also would love to return to hobbies like playing the keyboard, crochet, reading, and puzzles. She also would like to dedicate more time to her church where she is the worship leader minister of music and helps lead a clothing drive.
Mrs. Clarke now sees how the state wears families down through her own experience of providing free labor and having to rely on her elderly mother to provide some assistance. She hopes that through her advocacy work and through the TJC things will be able to change. Advocacy work can be difficult when you don’t see things get resolved right away “but you just have to stay at it.” Mrs. Clarke has seen it work. You have to “stay persistent in being an advocate for your loved ones because if you don’t do it, they won’t do it.” She is grateful that TJC is there to help her push forward and fight the good fight.
Photographs by John St. Clair