Jill Fummerton never wanted to be a nurse. In fact, she was adamantly against it for years; nursing was a family tradition — her grandmother, uncle, aunt and sister were all nurses — that she did not want to delve into.
But after two years of hard work at a veterinary technician program, her mother’s prediction came true and she switched to nursing.
She spent the next 35 years in the medical field. She worked for CHI Mercy Medical Center and a local doctors office as a labor and delivery nurse. Later, she would work for the public health department, where she worked with families before and after the birth of their child.
Her path changed six years ago. Fummerton found out that a request for proposals had been sent out statewide to expand the network for families with children with disabilities. It was a cause that Fummerton was personally familiar with.
She herself has a child with disabilities. Her oldest daughter, Jayme, was born with Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome, a genetic condition characterized by short stature, distinctive facial features, broad thumbs and first toes and moderate to severe intellectual disability.
“We had no idea she had any disabilities prior to her birth but there were some physical deformities that were noticed right in the delivery room,” Fummerton said. “One thing that really struck me was that no one came to visit. There was a lot of chatter before she was born, all the excitement, and then I literally had zero visitors outside of family. Because nobody knew what to say.”
With her own experiences, both personal and professional, to drive her, Fummerton founded Families Engaging and Thriving Together in September 2014 with the mission of bringing families affected by any sort of disability together. It took about two years to spread the word, but today over 200 local families are active in the network.
FEATT helps families in multiple ways, which Fummerton explains rather simply. There are three buckets the group works out of: Bringing families together, training and advocacy.
“Unless you have parented a child with a disability, you really can’t know. As much as you might try, you really can’t know what it is like. Many, many families — because they get so overwhelmed getting thrown into this world — find themselves in isolation. Sometimes it is self isolation, they don’t know what to do so they stay home and try to figure it out on their own,” Fummerton said. “So first and foremost, we bring families together and they get to know families that do understand the road they are traveling.”
Before COVID-19, FEATT organized monthly separate nights out for moms and dads, a monthly family event, group gatherings to community events such as pumpkin patches or the Veteran’s Day Parade and events specifically for siblings of children with disabilities. It organized parent training, bringing some of the educational resources available in larger cities to the area at little to no cost to FEATT families.
Most of these events have been put on hold due to the pandemic, though Fummerton has found other ways to continue helping families from a distance. Recently, the future of FEATT came into question. When the state legislature reassessed the budget in July, funding for FEATT and similar programs was cut.
Thankfully, Fummerton said, Connections Case Mgmt — an organization that provides case management for disabled adults in Coos, Curry, Douglas and Klamath Counties — has secured funding for the network through June 2021, allowing Fummerton time to explore different avenues of funding for the future.
“I am currently looking for parents that are interested in being on an advisory committee to help us shape our future,” Fummerton said. “We are at a turning point where we need to make some decisions on what we are going to do. There is no other organization that fills the niche that we do and therefore I cannot let it go away.”
Though the future of FEATT is different than what it was only a few months ago, Fummerton has the same drive she has always had: to be there for those that don’t have anyone else.
“Because of my experiences with my daughter, that immediate isolation, I was always drawn to the families that had a child with any kind of disability,” Fummerton said. “Those were the families that I wanted to take care of because I knew I didn’t have to have anything to say. I didn’t have to have the right words. Just being there and them knowing you are there no matter what they are feeling or experiencing is huge. With the right supports in place, they can do anything.”