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Shirley Bagwell

“My life would be chaos without my mom. She means the world to me. I don’t know what I would do without her. She’s been my best friend all my life.”

This was Cynthia Baker’s response when asked her about her mother, Shirley Bagwell. When her daughter was diagnosed as legally blind at a young age, Shirley and her husband David knew they would need to work hard to be sure she could have the same opportunities as everyone else. And they’ve done just that, offering support for Cynthia in any way they can.

While Cynthia was growing up, she attended public schools. Shirley explained, “We wanted to treat her just like the other kids.” But due to Cynthia’s visual limitations, she also needed extra training. Shirley and David helped her enroll in a special training school for cafeteria and restaurant work, which likely helped her find employment later. Shirley and David also sent her to a school for the blind in Florida to learn life skills for living with blindness. There, Cynthia met and married a fellow student, Ricky.

At the age of 30, Cynthia left home, and she and Ricky moved to Texas. Unfortunately Cynthia and Ricky did not have the support or opportunities they needed in Texas, and they lost their apartment. Once again, Shirley and David were there. “I told David, ‘We’re going down there to get them.’ My daughter’s not gonna live that way.” They drove to Texas and helped Cynthia and Ricky move to East Tennessee — into a home Shirley and David had bought for them.

Cynthia and Ricky pay her parents an affordable rent, and Shirley supports them any way she can. She says, “I generally help them with medical expenses,” she explained. “Since they can’t see to write checks, I balance their checkbook and help manage their finances. I take Cynthia grocery shopping and provide transportation when I can, like for going to the doctor.”

Shirley, now 72, spends as much time with Cynthia as she can. The four have dinner together often and sometimes go to the beach. But Shirley also worries about what will happen when she and David aren’t there anymore to offer support. “We want to be sure that if something happened to us, she could live a productive life without us. The top priority for us is making sure Cynthia and Ricky are taken care of, and as long as we have any say, they’ll always have a place they can live.”

Their fears are understandable, as Cynthia and Ricky have struggled to find employment due to their eyesight. Because of this, Cynthia finds herself in the coverage gap, not earning enough money to qualify for health coverage on the Marketplace, and not fitting one of the precise categories necessary to receive TennCare. Currently, in Tennessee, she has no affordable option for the health care she needs. But Shirley keeps fighting, hoping the Governor’s health care plan, Insure Tennessee, will pass and Cynthia will be able to access care.

Cynthia and Ricky need eye exams frequently due to their vision impairment, but without health coverage Shirley helps them pay out of pocket. Recently, Cynthia was bitten on her face and it swelled up. She had no idea what kind of bite it was or what was happening, but they couldn’t afford to go check. Like many uninsured families across our state, they had to take the risk that it wasn’t too serious.

When we asked how she discovered TJC, she answered, “I heard about the Tennessee Justice Center on TV, and I thought this could be some help. If she could only get health care–that’s been the struggle ever since we came back to Tennessee because there’s just nothing here for her. It’s not right. She deserves health care as much as anyone does.” We agree.

For her great love and devotion to her daughter, TJC is honored to recognize Shirley as a Mother of the Year.

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