by Carole Mathewson
Valona Varnum was a successful landscaping and interior designer when diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease that attacks the central nervous system, 12 years ago.
"I worked with architects," she said. "It was very important to me. I thought that life after design -- if I couldn't do it any more, I would wither up and die. But I found there was more to life."
Though she cannot move her hands nor her legs, Varnum lives an active life. Using a mouth stick, she enjoys working at her computer, which is designed for the handicapped. Using a Windows 95 program, she moves the mouse by pressing the arrows on the number keys.
"I can do almost anything (on the computer)," Varnum said. "It's interesting to me. It's fun and games. I can take photographs and then doctor up the photos and put them on banners, and I can do cards and letters. I write a lot of letters. I'm on e-mail with friends. I write to galleries, dealers and artists. I can't afford to collect like I want to. I used to have more paintings when we were in the gallery, but I couldn't keep most of them."
When failing health forced her out of the design business, Varnum and her husband at the time, Dave Crowell, bought an art gallery in Taos, N.M. and operated it for five years. Then her health grew worse, and she found it necessary to give up the gallery. Varnum's home, a veritable museum of Indian art, is indicative of her love of the trade.
"When I was in college, I started collecting Indian art," she said.
From Taos, Varnum went to Kingman, Ariz., where she was confined to a nursing home for a time. She has been in Payson since 1991.
"When I was in the nursing home," she said, "I would write the newsletter and would put it out weekly and gather information -- who was doing what and whose birthday was coming up. That was fun. Fortunately, I got out of the nursing home."
But Varnum continues to devote herself to others through volunteer work.
"I do work on the computer, doing banners, invitations, etc., for the disability people -- banners for putting on cars."
One of her pet peeves, she said, is people who park in the space allotted for wheelchair ramps.
"Sometimes before we get out of the van, someone has parked in the space beside us," she said.
"And I get upset with people who pull in beside us and say, 'I'm only going to be here a short time.' Not all handicapped people need the ramp, but a lot of us do."
One of the banners that Varnum makes on her computer reads, "Please don't park here! This is the ramp space for wheelchair loading and unloading. You can be fined."
Varnum met another local advocate for disabled people, Lee Pretsch, at a fair housing meeting.
"Lee Pretsch spoke at the meeting and she impressed me."
It was then that Varnum began doing volunteer work for the disabled.
"I want to do more, she said. "I feel better when I'm doing something. I wish she (Pretsch) would ask me to do more."
Varnum tries to stay busy designing signs for local stores that announce activities for the disabled. She has plans to help make fliers for Drug Abuse Resistance Education.
"They're having a basketball game, and I hope to make the fliers to put in the windows of stores. I used to be so active before I became disabled. It makes me feel better to be active rather than sitting around thinking about my problems."
Born in Enid, Okla. in 1946, Varnum grew up in Phoenix, Apache Junction and Truth or Consequences, N.M.
"When I was first there (in Truth of Consequences)," she said, "it was Hot Springs."
In 1980, she married Dave Crowell who works for Country Living real estate. She now uses her maiden name.
"The government would help me if I was divorced but not if I was married," she said. "If I stayed married, I couldn't get help."
Despite the divorce, Varnum and Crowell remain together.
"Dave is involved in senior softball," she said. "I have the MS, but it might as well be both of us, because he has to put up with all the problems I have. And if he wants to go somewhere, he has to get a 'babysitter,' and that's Janice."
Varnum's nurse, Janice Neely, has been with her six years.
"She is more like a daughter to me," she said. "We go places and people say, 'Oh, you take good care of your mother.'
"Her company wants her to wear a uniform -- oh, no," she said. "We go shopping and to the casino. I don't want her to look like a nurse. I want people to think she's my daughter."
Varnum has no children.
"I have three very nice step-daughters," she said. "I love them to pieces. They're good with me."
Two live in California and one lives in Wyoming.
"My mother is in Lake Havasu," she said. She is very good with me."
She described her mother as a typical good mother who worries about her. "I'm 53 years old, and I'm still her little girl."
Varnum said the national Americans with Disability Act has been instrumental in helping people with disabilities enjoy independence.
"Without them," she said, "we probably wouldn't have any voice. The ADA helps people find jobs and nurses."
October is national Americans with Disability Act month.
On a local level, Varnum said a van with a hydraulic lift would be a great boon for wheelchair-bound residents.
"One of the car dealers will donate a van if we can get insurance," she said. "But insurance is so expensive." Maybe, she said, businesses around town will chip in to pay for it.
"Going to a doctor, it would be nice to be able to call and have a volunteer driver, "Varnum said.
"In Phoenix, they charge a minimum amount."
Learning to depend on others has been a big adjustment for Varnum, who studied art and architecture at Arizona State University in Tempe.
"After college I worked as a designer," she said. "I thought I was set up for life to design. I did my own drafting, board work and drew prospectives for jobs.
"It was a very lucrative business. All at once I began having trouble walking and couldn't get out on site any more."
She began having trouble drawing and holding pencils, and developed vision problems.
"Then I couldn't work," she said, "and it was a real blow. My life was turned upside down. Doing something like volunteering makes me feel better."