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“Paying it forward” to a Jaffrey friend in need

  • Dennis Crandall of Jaffrey plays with one of his two cats as it lounges on the back of a futon at Crandall's apartment on North Street.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Dennis Crandall of Jaffrey plays with one of his two cats as it lounges on the back of a futon at Crandall's apartment on North Street.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Dennis Crandall of Jaffrey checks emails and Facebook posts from his personal office at his North Street apartment last month.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Dennis Crandall of Jaffrey checks emails and Facebook posts from his personal office at his North Street apartment last month.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Dennis Crandall, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth, spends time with his two cats at his Jaffrey apartment on North Street in October.<br/><br/>Archive photo<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Dennis Crandall, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth, spends time with his two cats at his Jaffrey apartment on North Street in October.

    Archive photo

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Dennis Crandall of Jaffrey plays with one of his two cats as it lounges on the back of a futon at Crandall's apartment on North Street.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Dennis Crandall of Jaffrey checks emails and Facebook posts from his personal office at his North Street apartment last month.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Dennis Crandall, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth, spends time with his two cats at his Jaffrey apartment on North Street in October.<br/><br/>Archive photo<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

JAFFREY — He taught her more than anyone else ever had about the tenacity of the human spirit, the importance of hope and overcoming adversity. Dennis Crandall was just 12 years old when he met Sue Cushman, his former sixth grade teacher at McClelland School in Rochester, N.Y.. But, more than 20 years later, the two said that first meeting must have been fate.

Crandall, who was born with a neuromuscular disability known as cerebral palsy, wasn’t like the other kids in his sixth-grade class, and Cushman, now of Orchard Park, N.Y., recently told the Ledger-Transcript that her greatest fear is that she wouldn’t be able to meet his educational needs. But Crandall surprised her that day, she said. And even today, as Crandall faces financial hardship in his adult life, Cushman said his sense of optimism and his compassion for others has never faltered.

“A little guy named Dennis wheeled himself into my classroom one day and soon after [into] my heart,” Cushman said. “He forever changed me, and every single person he came into contact with. I had no idea that he would teach me so much about myself and about life.”

Crandall, who is now 37, said in an interview with the Ledger-Transcript at his apartment in Jaffrey last month that while growing up there were people that wanted to get close to him and learn more about his disability, and at the same time others who were quick to back away.

But why the varied responses from his peers? An answer to that question is one Crandall said he spent much of his youth seeking.

“What it boils down to is we don’t know why we are different,” said Crandall, who earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Keene State College in 2002. “We are wired for black and white and not differences of gray. I’m in the gray area. I was in a wheelchair, yes, but never in a special education classroom. I was always mainstream.”

Cerebral palsy causes physical disability in early human development and affects nearly one child in every 400, Crandall said. Limitations in movement and posture are often accompanied by stiff, spastic muscles, sight-based perceptual problems and daily communication challenges — symptoms which Crandall faces each day.

Crandall, who was born in Keene, said he’s always loved the Monadnock region and decided to live in Jaffrey when an affordable, handicap accessible apartment became available at the Jaffrey Mill Apartments on North Street five years ago. He had intended for the apartment to be temporary until he found one in Keene, but Crandall said its been a perfect fit and that he continues to enjoy Jaffrey’s small-town community.

Despite the day-to-day struggles he faces, Crandall said cerebral palsy has been as much of a blessing as it has been a challenge because it has encouraged his curiosity about the world around him.

Crandall’s positive attitude, Cushman said, is what has continuously inspired his former teachers and classmates. It’s also why when Cushman saw a recent post on Crandall’s Facebook page, she said, she didn’t hesitate to come to the aid of a friend.

“I saw on Facebook that Dennis was selling items he cherished on eBay to pay for basic necessities,” Cushman said. “So many of us are blessed with good health and don’t realize the struggles that others around us are facing. I knew that this was my time to pay if forward.”

Since September, Cushman has been leading online and mail-in based fundraising efforts to raise $5,000 to help Crandall pay off his medical bills and purchase everyday products for his home. She has coined her campaign for Crandall “A Chance to Pay it Forward,” creating both a Facebook page and website, http://achancetopayitforward.weebly.com, that bear the slogan.

Crandall, who doesn’t get food stamps, said having the money to purchase household necessities, including groceries, toiletries and cleaning products, is a struggle. Crandall said his survivor, or disability, benefits is his only source of monthly income and that it has to cover his rent, cable and other bills before he can think about paying down his medical debt.

“It’s a real challenge,” Crandall said. “When all that is set and done, it is really hard to get ahead. I wanted to break the cycle and that’s why I started selling my things on eBay.”

But Cushman said she wasn’t going to let Crandall sell his treasured possessions. About three months ago, Cushman reached out to Crandall and quickly began developing a plan to ease his financial burden.

Crandall said the offer Cushman made to him is one that he will never forget and that he is still amazed by the generosity she has shown him throughout the years.

“God put me in her classroom for a reason,” he said. “It may not have been abundantly clear at the time, but I know now that I was meant to be there.”

So far, the fundraising efforts have brought in nearly $2,500, Cushman said Thursday, and they will continue until her goal of $5,000 is reached. While a handicap accessible van for Crandall is also a future aspiration, Cushman said, she’s taking it one step at a time.

“Even if people just donate $10, 20 or $50, I know that it would mean so much to Dennis,” Cushman said. “You don’t have to have huge amounts of anything to make a difference for someone else.”

Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 228 or adandrea@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @alyssadandrea.

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