In 1991, Florissant native Gary Behlmann and his wife Karen lost their 7-year-old daughter, Angie, to complications from cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus.
After Angie died, the Behlmanns channeled their grief into action: using their knowledge and passion to help children who live with disabilities.
“When my daughter was born, I had no idea what a disability was,” he said. “We thought we had learned so much from Angie, and we thought that with what we had learned and what we had accomplished with Angie that we could help somebody."
Behlmann is usually a man of few words, but ask him about children with disabilities and he's off and running.
Behlmann, who's worked a furniture finisher for the past 27 years, never imagined spending his life as an advocate for children with disabilities, until that incident changed the course of his life.
In some cultures, death isn’t seen as the end of a life, but rather the start of a new one.
Gary Behlmann took that philosophy to heart after the death of his daughter. In her short existence, Angie lived with cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid on the brain.
Cerebralpalsy.org states the condition arises from brain damage suffered while a child’s brain is developing. It affects balance, posture, reflex, muscle control and body movement. More than 760,000 children and adults have cerebral palsy.
“Thirty-one years ago, this is not what I thought parenting would be,” he said.
Behlmann’s first daughter, Kari, was born premature in 1980. Angie followed three years later.
Taking care of Angie became a major undertaking.
Behlmann said Angie had six or seven shunts throughout her life, which allowed the fluid on her brain to flow into her abdomen.
He recalled times when Kari, who has a learning disability, needed to go elsewhere for an activity or event, but Angie could not go because of her wheelchair.
In other instances, while Angie was in the hospital to treat a shunt infection, Kari would stay with their grandparents while her parents remained at the hospital to take care of Angie.
Angie battled a number of infections until the antibiotics no longer worked, and her parents decided to take her home for the final time. She died in April 1991.
Even as he grieved for his daughter, Behlmann came to realize that all of the lessons and research he had gathered for Angie were valuable.
“We wanted to help other kids," he said. "At least I thought that if I just didn’t go out and help other kids, I would be doing a disservice to my Angie.”
Starting close to home, Behlmann and his wife decided to bring other special needs children into their family circle.
“We had a void, and we needed it filled,” he said. “We waited and when it felt right, we started taking foster kids.”
They adopted Charlene in 1997. Her birth mother had used drugs during her pregnancy that affected Charlene and her behaviors.
“The mental illness that it caused, the challenges that she faces every day are not fair. It’s just not fair,” he said. “She works so hard to get through those challenges, and some days no matter how hard she works, it comes back at her in behavior and things like that that she has no control over.”
Two years later, they adopted Barbara, who has Down syndrome.
Now, 19, Barbara is completing her education at this year and will enter a job training program at University of Missouri at St. Louis.
Beyond the family circle
Behlmann's built on his personal commitment by joining the Disability Awareness Commission, which he now serves on as chairman.
He also became a regular attendee at (HSD) Board of Education meetings to advocate for children with special needs.
“Every board member knows who Gary Behlmann is,” said HSD Board Member Mark Behlmann (who has no relation to Gary). “All the ones in between know who he is.”
Mark Behlmann told Florissant Patch, “Gary is not a strong talker,” he said. “If you get him started talking about kids in need, hold on for the ride.”
“He’s a quiet, strong man," Ward 7 Councilwoman Karen McKay said. "But he’s a strong advocate for children with disabilities.”
Mark Behlmann credits Gary for his foresight and perseverance.
“I’ve grown to truly admire him,” Mark Behlmann said. “He’s a one-man army when it comes to (talking about children with disabilities).”
Recently, the Hazelwood School District began adding other accommodations for children with disabilities. Mark Behlmann said , which one of his children attended, installed and opened an elevator to its students this past fall.
In addition to pressing the school board for better accommodations, Gary Behlmann has been working on a project close to his heart for three years.
Behlmann is president of Accessible Play, which has taken on the charge of bringing on inclusive playground to Florissant and North County. He’s named it .
Planning and building a playground that allows children of all abilities to interact and have fun is no easy feat, but Behlmann remains optimistic.
“I see the last year with the playground as frustrating, but I’m not going to give up,” he said. “To see it come true is going to be absolutely amazing. It will outlive anything that I ever do.”