Jean Barrett knows what its like to make a difference in the lives of others. Left as an infant on the doorstep of a foundling home in Fulton, Mo., she learned the meaning of love, service and dedication from her adoptive parents, Douglas and Iris Byrne.
Calling her mother the guiding force in her life, the 87-year-old Independence resident says not a day goes by that she doesnt repeat something her mom told her as a child that impacted her impressionable life.
The 1945 graduate of William Chrisman High School has dedicated her last six decades to her 61-year-old son, Kevin Castle, who resides at a group home at the Higginsville (Mo.) Habitation Center. Kevin, who Jean describes as mentally retarded was 9 when he went to Higginsville.
Her energy is boundless, says Carole Vaughan, Jeans former neighbor and longtime friend. She has been directly involved in the political and social aspects of history-making legislation for the retarded and educating legislators about the needs of disabled persons and their care.
Calling Jean an articulate and fearless champion of people with developmental disabilities, Keith Schafer, director of the Missouri Department of Mental Health, says in an email the department has been blessed to have Jean Barrett as a volunteer leader and advocate among family members with loved ones at the Higginsville Habitation Center for at least a half-century.
Without people like Jean, Missourians with developmental disabilities would not have attained the options they now have to lead more fulfilling lives and experience the understanding and respect that they deserve from state officials, state and community staff who work with them, and from the Missouri public.
In addition to serving on the Missouri Mental Health Commission from 1993 to 1999, Jean and her second husband, John Barrett, started the Retardation Association of America and were active in the Higginsville Parents Association and the Voice of the Retarded. John owned Johnson Cleaners in Independence.
Jean, who also attended McCoy School, says she has lived a marvelous life, even though her first marriage to Lawrence Castle ended in divorce in 1954. With Carole Vaughan by her side at a recent interview, Jean reminisced about her life of service, recalling she was born on Feb. 12, 1927, and adopted three weeks later.
You know, I never questioned (the adoption), Jean says. I didnt care. I had wonderful parents and they taught me right from wrong and the right things to do.
Upon hearing for the first time that she was adopted , Jean replied: So what! Im going out to play.
With her mother reassuring her she was a much-wanted child, Jean thought: Well, thats OK. But I still want to go out and play. And she did. Happy to be the loving daughter of Douglas and Iris Byrne.
The ups and downs of life
One of Jeans pleasures is playing golf with her girlfriends or anyone else up to the challenge.
And this avid golfer was up to the challenge on July 31. Her excitement went off the charts when she made a hole-in one at the Drumm Farm Golf Club Executive Course, with Carole looking on.
Youve heard of the Luck of the Irish? Well, this was my luck, Jean proudly says of her 86-yard bulls-eye on the 8th hole.
Smiling, she recalls teeing off from atop a hill and watching with amazement as the ball hit the green and kept rolling and rolling until it disappeared into the hole. After 27 years of waiting, Jeans hole-in-one dream became a reality at age 87.
As Carole waited to tee off, she looked down the hill, saw Jeans ball plop into the cup and heard Jean scream with excitement, The ball went in the hole. Now it was celebration time.
Offsetting the joy of perhaps this once-in-a-lifetime golfing feat were the three bouts of cancer this courageous woman fought and conquered over a 21-year span.
I have been cancer free since 2002, Jean says thankfully of the disease that attacked her breast in 1981, her sternum in 2002 and her right arm sometime in between there.
But despite these scary times, Jean stays active in body, mind and spirit and remains everyones model, Carole says.
For those of us who know her and have watched her through the years handle the ups and downs of life and the really serious issues she has had to face, her sense of humor and her optimism is remarkable. She likes to be positive and find solutions ... and she has no intentions of slowing down.
Jean, though, doesnt know the meaning of slowing down. Shes too busy with such projects as redecorating the kitchen of her sons group home at Higginsville, at her own expense, as well as installing a walk-in bathtub for those residents who cant negotiate a regular tub.
Shes constantly doing for others, Carole says, like sponsoring trips for the residents in Kevins group home who are mute and do not have parents or anyone else to visit them.
That is the remarkable Jean Barrett, Carole proudly says of this indefatigable humanitarian, whom she describes as always happy, always having something clever to say and always dressing nicely and looking as though she has just stepped out of a band box.
Jean will tell you that when she went to Tacoma, Washington, to work in the shipyards during WWII, she decided to make a career change and become a nurse. But that never happened. She opted to marry, instead.
Carole, though, believes Jean did become a nurse. Not medically, but psychologically, she says, explaining she functioned in that capacity by nursing her son, friends and those in need.
I have lived a good life and I enjoy each day, Jean says . If I can just keep on doing what I am doing, I am a happy camper.
Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.