Thursday, May 7, 2015

Fighting Spirit: Husband-Wife UNO Graduates Want to Turn Advocacy into Careers

Melissa and Larry Mayeaux returned to college at the University of New Orleans in 2010 to become better advocates for their daughter.

The news came 14 years ago, but there’s no chance Melissa and Larry Mayeaux don’t remember everything about it. Their daughter, Lauran, was born without any skeletal muscle below her neck. Doctors said it was the most severe case that they could find find anywhere in the United States.

“We were told from day one that she wouldn’t make it out of the hospital and that she probably wouldn’t make it six days,” Larry Mayeaux says. That prediction was wrong, as were the many subsequent ones that claimed Lauran’s days were numbered. It wasn’t that the bad news stopped coming, it was that the Mayeauxs stopped believing it.

“We were trying to listen to the professionals who know what they’re doing, and we are sitting here for the first couple of years preparing for our daughter to die,” Melissa Mayeaux says. “And at some point, we looked at each other and said ‘She’s not dying. She’s not going anywhere.’”

That realization was an epiphany for the parents who decided that they would assume a more proactive role in her life. Lauran had a lot of obstacles that stood in her way but the Mayeauxs would fight to help her clear them. They engaged in protracted battles with Medicare so that it would cover Lauran’s new wheelchairs. And they led the charge to have Lauran’s school install an elevator.

In 2010, Melissa and Larry agreed that they wanted to bring about some changes in their own lives. They would enroll at the University of New Orleans together.

“It wasn’t easy to make the decision to come back to school with three children and an already established family,” Melissa says. “It got to the point where we realized that in order to provide in the way that we really want to for our children, that we needed to do something and we both decided to come back to school.”

Melissa majored in English with a concentration in journalism and a psychology minor. She interned at a local television station and is planning a career in broadcast journalism. Larry, who works full-time as an electrician, studied political science with an eye on attending law school.

"We both have a feeling for advocacy,” Larry says. “We have a disabled daughter and we’ve had to fight for different things for her, for her schooling and for Medicare. And it’s been a big effort. I think Melissa has a talent for making her case in the public and I have a talent for finding the legal answers, going the bureaucratic route. I’m good at that.”

Their advocacy has been rewarded by a caring community. In December, the Mayeauxs’ handicapped-accessible van broke down. In order to raise the $50,000 needed for a new one, Melissa started a GoFundMe website, which allows members of the public to make online donations to a specific cause. The family held benefits and spread the word on social media. Fox 8 News did a feature story on Lauran, which sparked an outpouring of support. Within days of the story, the Mayeauxs raised an additional $6,000 for their new van. Fox 8 News reporter Nicondra Norwood subsequently contacted Melissa to inform her that the New Orleans Saints wanted to donate a signed football to the family and feature Melissa in a Mother’s Day commercial.

It was all part of a well-orchestrated ruse to get the Mayeauxs to visit the Saints’ Metairie headquarters. After Melissa was interviewed, the Mayeauxs started to leave the facility when they were greeted by team owners Tom and Gayle Benson.

“We thought they were going to be the ones to present us with a signed football, which they did,” Larry says. “And then Gayle pulls out a key to a brand new van and I was floored. It was phenomenal.”

The kindness hasn’t stopped there. Strangers have continued to send cards and contribute money to the family’s GoFundMe site. Now that they have a new van, they hope to use the donations to install a handicapped-accessible bathroom in their house.

The Mayeauxs say they have learned from their daughter’s own example. “A lot of people expect us to be wallowing in our pity because we have this daughter with this rare disease,” Melissa says. “I think a lot of people are surprised to see that we are not that way. We’re absolutely the opposite of that way. And we’re always encouraging Lauran to do everything she wants to do.”

In May, Melissa and Larry Mayeaux were joined by nearly 1,000 classmates in the UNO graduating class of 2015. Larry says he feels accomplished.

“I think that coming to UNO is one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made in my life, other than getting married to Melissa,” he says. “I think it’s a fabulous institution. I think that more than just the city would be missing out if something happens to this school. There is no other option, especially for nontraditional students. The support that I’ve gotten from the teachers and faculty has been fantastic. I like the attention that I’m given as nontraditional student.”

In addition to Lauran, the Mayeauxs have a 17-year-old daughter, Mia, and an 8-year-old boy, Antonio. The family has a history of overcoming challenges. The levee failures after Hurricane Katrina wiped out their Lakeview home and everything they owned. But these significant experiences have left them with deeply held beliefs about their priorities. Larry would like to become a lawyer so that he can work for a nonprofit such as Families Helping Families, a family resource center for disabled individuals and their families.

“We’ve worked with lawyers who helped us in ways that really influenced my life and I’d like to give back to an organization like that,” Larry says. “I’m not interested in making a whole lot of money but I sure would like to make a difference.” 

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Fighting Spirit: Husband-Wife Graduates Want to Turn Advocacy into Careers