With teacher as foster parent, Down syndrome boy gets big break

Monday, December 17, 2001

ST. LOUIS -- Finally, 11-year-old Alf Schultz could just be a kid.

Standing proud in his Boy Scout uniform, the boy with Down syndrome got his first Scout badge during a ceremony this month. When applauded for leading his troop in fund-raising popcorn sales, he thrust his arms skyward, his smile a mile wide.

No longer was Alf, just a fifth-grader, pressed to be the man in his house to his mentally impaired younger brother or sister. Or to his Down syndrome mother who gave the kids up to foster care when single parenting turned overwhelming after Alf's dad died this summer.

Alf's troubles seemed washed away by his new life, courtesy of a teacher at his elementary school, who with her husband, have taken Alf in and accepted him as their own.

"I get to do stuff I never did before and eat things I never ate before," he said, beaming, always the good Scout in keeping his pledge to be trustworthy, helpful, friendly, courteous -- and perhaps most of all brave, given where he's been.

"Alf has found grown-ups able to give him the childhood he never had," said Tamara Shrader, a counselor at Alf's school, Koch Elementary.

Named after TV character

It's an odyssey that began just months ago for the boy named after his mother's favorite TV character -- the Oscar-the-Grouch-type alien who disrupted a suburban family. His younger brother was born Harley Davidson, their sister Hulda. Both are mentally retarded.

By all accounts, the family got by on disability and Social Security payouts. Alf's father, Larry, struggled with severe physical ailments and chronic pain, at times so insufferable the 6-foot-4-inch man topping 300 pounds couldn't sit. Alf's mother doted on the kids, at times towing Harley and Hulda in a red wagon to get to Alf's school to meet with teachers.

Even with Down syndrome, Alf was the household's highest functioning member aside from his father, Shrader said.

Late last spring, everything unraveled.

While Alf was doing lawn work in June, he noticed his father not moving in the backyard and knew something was wrong.

As emergency workers tried to revive the man there, Alf watched him die.

Like most at Koch Elementary, third-grade teacher Leisa Snowden knew and liked Alf. "He's just a really neat kid," Shrader said.

Became man of the house

But losing his father stung. Alf took on the role of the man of the house while his mother struggled as the single parent to three children.

"She said, 'I'm doing everything I can, wrestling with this and I still can't do it,"' Shrader said.

Alf's mother reached out, getting the Snowdens to take in Alf for five weeks last summer.

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