College Still The Focus In Calamity Despite The Disability Of Her Husband And The Demands Of Raising A Large Family, Valerie Peery Is Determined To Get A Nursing Degree, And Her Family Is Cheering Her On.

Posted: March 14, 1991

The lights go on daily in the Peery family's five-bedroom rancher at the

break of dawn. Then everybody moves blurry-eyed to the wood stove near the kitchen to subdue the morning chill and discuss daily challenges that would send some people back to bed.

That's because life has thrown a knock-down pitch at the Glen Mills family.

Last year at this time, Charles Peery, 38, was working the best job he ever had. Valerie Peery, his 39-year-old wife, was realizing her dream of getting a degree in nursing at Widener University and working part time in a sewing factory.

Their six children, who range from 10 to 19, were happy doing their own thing - growing up.

Then, one night in May, disaster struck.

Driving to work, Charles Peery was hit head-on by a drunken motorist. His back was broken, leaving him unable to work. Six months later, Valerie Peery lost her part-time job.

Now, the Peerys are in fiscal meltdown. Charles' unemployment benefits are tapped out. A full scholastic workload, a tutoring job and tending to her husband and the children has added stress to Valerie's day. Just getting by means relying on food stamps, welfare checks and money borrowed from friends and relatives.

But Misfortune is having great difficulty breaking the Peerys' resolve to beat the odds and regain their independence.

Despite the obvious economic drawbacks, the Peerys have stepped back up to the plate and are sticking to their long-term goals, no matter how difficult.

They have concluded that the best course of action lies in having Valerie Peery - an award-winning student who has worked as a medic, midwife, volunteer firefighter and farmer - stay in nursing school full time and earn a degree in May 1992.

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Valerie Peery's day is long. She cooks the family breakfast and inspects the children before they leave for school. About 8 a.m. she scurries from home to classes at Widener. Mostly, she's in classes and doing clinical work at Riddle Memorial Hospital from 9 a.m. until after 7:30 p.m.

"I'm home at about 8:30 at night," she said. "That's when I help the kids with their homework, cook dinner and do the chores around the house. My husband and I spend time together, and then I do my homework for school. I belong to several volunteer groups, and I give them time whenever I can."

She started nursing school at Widener in 1988 and was one of 10 people recognized in February by the Pennsylvania Association of Adult Continuing Education for their work inside and outside the classroom. She maintained a 4.0 grade-point average.

"Although I was an average student in high school, I didn't know if I could do it," she said. "After I took a transitional education course at Widener, I was certain I could. And my friends, family and relatives had confidence in me.

"Before the accident we were really doing fine. At least we could see where we were going. We had bought a five-bedroom ranch house, I had started school, and the children were proud of me. We were making it. But I feel very lucky to still have him," she said about her husband.

"We've survived hard times before," she said. "And we'll survive this time. Misfortune can bring you closer together or drive you apart. It has brought us closer together. We are a unit, and that makes a world of difference."

Charles and Valerie Peery, both natives of the Thornbury area, believe they have always struggled because neither has a college degree.

During the 1970s, for example, they took whatever work they could get, including farm work in Cicero, Ind., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Valerie worked as a midwife whenever she could. Charles took on construction work when it was available.

In 1981 they returned to Chester County and rented a house in Uwchlan Township. Again, they took whatever work they could find. In her spare time, Valerie Peery "took a few odd courses" in medical technology at Delaware County Community College.

"I took the courses because I wanted to do some volunteer work for the community," she said. "I grew up in a family that emphasized helping people. So I became a volunteer fireman for two township fire companies, as well as a medic for the ambulance. I was also a secretary for Ludwig's Corner Fire Company."

Meanwhile, she was earning money as local church and township building janitor. "Although I've worked as a midwife since 1971, I can't work as a midwife in Pennsylvania without being a registered nurse and going to the University of Pennsylvania and getting a master's degree for certification. That's what I want to do, after I graduate from Widener."

Widener assistant dean Dena Matthews, who is director of University Way, the department that administers the adult program, remembers when Valerie Peery enrolled.

"She brought me her transcript from high school," Matthews recalled. ''Her SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores were exceptional. She could have gone to any college of her choice. She said she was just an average student. She didn't have a great sense of her potential."

It was Matthews who nominated Peery for the Pennsylvania education award. ''Not only is she an exceptional student and a student role model for us, she's also a mother of six children who is overcoming the misfortune of her husband's accident."

It was also Matthews who gave Peery a nursing tutoring job at Widener for several hours a week, noticing that she excelled in various nursing subjects that include chemistry, anatomy and physiology. In addition, she is invited to speak to other adult students about the hardships of going back to school. Peery gets paid extra for tutoring and speaking.

"We're helping her in every way we can," Matthews said. "We're giving her a scholarship and whatever grants are available to finance her education. It's a good investment. She's the kind of person who will give it all back. She's not motivated by the amount of money she'll make, but by the amount of service she can give to other people."

Charles Peery, on the other hand, was motivated mostly by the money he earned as a prototype specialty operator for Greene-Tweed, a hydraulic fuel company in Kulpsville, Bucks County. He got the job in 1984 and made about $450 a week. By 1985, the couple had saved enough money to buy their home in Glen Mills.

"I've been out of work since the accident," said Peery. "I've lost 100 percent of my salary, and I've used up 23 weeks of unemployment payments. We're doing everything we possibly can to survive. Welfare, food stamps, borrowing money from relatives and friends.

"I was flat on my back for 14 weeks," he said. "I've been declared 90 percent disabled. I've been up since October, and I've finished all the rehabilitation I can get. I can't get anything from my job because the accident wasn't work-related."

At six feet, 185 pounds, Peery was able to lift more than 200 pounds before his accident. He had a grip capacity of about 120 pounds. Now, his weight is down 35 pounds, his lifting capacity is less than 15 pounds and his grip capacity is less than 7 pounds.

Peery said that his doctor told him his best bet is to go back to school and prepare for a desk job. "I'm really thinking about it," he said. "I've taken some computer courses at Widener because I think eventually that whatever I end up doing will require some computer skills. But I really want to do something that's related to the environment - agriculture or forestry."

"For a while I didn't feel like doing anything. Financially, it was devastating. I was helping Valerie with school, because she wasn't working. She got a part-time job, but it was a bit too much, especially with young children to raise. She wanted to come out of school, but we talked about it. I'm happy that she decided to stay in. She deserves it. She's had a lot of

pressure lately."

Peery said he's always looking for honest work that complements his disability. He has a plow on his pickup to shovel snow. But there hasn't been enough snow this year to make any money.

"The love of my family keeps me on my feet and full of hope," he said. ''If you lay down, you never get up."

Another inspiration is Valerie Peery's 70-year-old mother, Marion Walker. A Thornbury resident, Walker earned a bachelor's degree three years ago from Cheney University, where she works now in the science department.

"She said if she could do it, I can do it," Valerie said. "She's been a great inspiration to me and my family."

Walker said she's proud of her daughter and son-in-law for the way they are handling their problems. "I think there will be problems until she graduates," Walker said. "But I'm doing everything I possibly can to help them. I lend them a car and money, whenever they need it. Sometimes I'll cook meals for them."

The children - James, 10; Emily, 11; Darrell, 13; Matthew, 15; Timothy, 18; and Adrian, 19, who lives away from home - are also doing their part.

There are times when the older ones will help the younger ones with school work or personal problems. They know how to prepare a meal if their parents aren't around. Household chores such as yard work, repairs and heavy lifting, that their father used to do were delegated to the boys.

Timothy, a senior at West Chester East High School, works from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. at a restaurant on Route 1 near Route 322.

"My father's accident was pretty scary," he said. "I realize he can't do the things he used to do, so I do all the heavy stuff around the house. I'm really proud of my mom for everything she's doing, too. Especially being in school and all. So I give them my paycheck every week and keep the tips for myself."

Meanwhile, Valerie Peery tries to keep the family's spirits high. She and her husband find time to take long walks together, and she sings for the family at least once a week.

"I can't imagine life without music," she said. "I've played piano and guitar since I was a child. When the kids were little, I would sing them to sleep every night."

She smiled softly. "When I'm really down, when I'm feeling hopeless, I sing 'Amazing Grace,' " she said. "That always makes me feel better."

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