Born into Crisis 5 - Signs of Hope

FLINT (WJRT) -- (2/12/2020) - Five years ago, one of the worst environmental disasters in the U.S. rocked the city of Flint.

As the world learned lead was leaching into the city's water system and poisoning its children, a mother was giving birth to her son named Taylor. Like so many parents, she was told the long term impact of the tainted water is unknown.

Taylor experienced a profound change over the past year, after four years of developmental struggles and delays. He is improving - thanks to intervention and his mother's sheer will.

Just after 7 a.m. on a recent morning, Tiantha Williams had just clocked out of her brand new job
finishing her overnight shift at General Motors. It's her third job, but she's about to start her fourth and most important one -- helping her 4-year-old Taylor start his day.

Taylor's grandma has him dressed and ready so they can get on the road to school before sunrise. It's an early start, but Taylor's new school, Educare, is worth it.

“The biggest thing is he's talking more and he's really doing great and doing better at things I was concerned about,” Tiantha said.

Her concerns started before Taylor was even born. She was pregnant with him when she and the world learned the water flowing out of their faucet in Flint was poisoned with lead.

Babies born during the water crisis, like Taylor, face the highest risk of lead exposure and developmental delays. But at Educare, services are in place to give him everything he needs to change that outcome.

Taylor spends most of his day at the school. For nine hours he is immersed in activities to improve his vocabulary and development.

Miss Toni and Miss J partner with parents, teaching families everything they need to know to even the playing field in the critical years before kindergarten. The children learn life, language and coping skills to overcome the water crisis, poverty or any challenges they may face at home.

“I've seen a lot growth in the classroom with children. The way he's learning, he expands his vocabulary. Doing wonderful. He is playing with all his peers to know he wants to come. He has a good time,” Miss Toni said.

Taylor has come so far, especially when considering how his young life started. Tiantha said exposure to lead caused her to go into labor early -- way too early. Taylor stopped breathing three times and Tiantha didn't know if he would survive.

“Always going to be angry. Always going to be angry,” she said. “Some kids died. Mine died three times. So it's always a hurt.”

For the past five years, ABC12 has tracked his progress as he learned to crawl and stand, overcame muscle weakness to walk and struggled when learning to speak.

Last year, this bright happy boy couldn't communicate like other 3 year olds. Taylor would cry in frustration when trying to talk.

“That was really stressful for me,” Tiantha said. “It really hurt because I didn't know what my baby wanted.”

But 12 months later, his world is changing. He has improved so much that even he seems amazed that when he asks for something finally people understand him. Even small moments seem life-changing for Taylor.

It's progress that came after years of work that looks a lot more like play at speech therapy. Taylor is learning to ask for help and communicate his needs.

“It was amazing to see him finally get it,” Tiantha said. “You don't even prompt and he knows he has to ask.”

She repeats and reinforces the exercises at home

No one knows what the future will bring for Taylor or any of the children who drank Flint's lead-tainted water. Any amount of lead in the blood can lead to lower IQ scores, behavioral problems and developmental delays.

But by intervening in early childhood, Taylor is getting the best chance to rise above any damage and succeed.

In Taylor's new house in Mott Park, the pipes have been replaced, but that does little to restore Tiantha's faith in the water.

“There's just a lot I wish I could put behind me,” she said. “It's still a struggle. I want it to be over, want it to be solved. Want all the mothers who went through that stuff with the water. I want it to be over. I still use bottled water with cooking and stuff. I use the water for bathing washing.”

In Flint, the water crisis is far from over, but in this house Taylor's progress has given Tiantha something she and the city desperately need: Hope.

“He's almost where he is supposed to be at 4 years old,” she said.

Tiantha hopes Taylor will be able to carry on a conversation a year from now.

The Genesee Intermediate School District provides free early intervention services to children under age 5 affected by the Flint water crisis. Anyone with concerns about their child having developmental delays should call 810-591-KIDS.