A profile in courage


The very mention of the word “mother” conjures up images of love, compassion, safety, serenity, and courage. I would like to write about a mother who, against great odds, is an epitome of courage and tenacity.

Valerie Shirley, a mother of four, received the 2010 Rose Phillips Award from the Courage Center this September at a ceremony at the Earle Brown Heritage Center. The Rose Phillips Award acknowledges and honors a behind-the-scenes caregiver vital to the success of a person with a disability. The Courage Center has the following on its website: Valerie Shirley is a competent, positive woman who “accomplishes anything she sets her mind to and who has instilled her work ethic in her children,” according to her nominator.

After her husband abandoned her and their four children, Valerie was a single mom struggling to raise a family, working as a teacher. Then her son Musab, just four months old, contracted spinal meningitis which left him deaf, severely brain damaged and with diminished motor function.

Valerie has committed herself to providing Musab with all the resources and skills he needs to live a productive, independent life. She and her family enrolled in American Sign Language (ASL) classes and all, including Musab, are now fluent in ASL. She returned to school for a Master’s Degree in Deaf Education.

Doctors gave her very little hope about Musab’s potential. But she took the challenges and turned them into opportunities, said her nominator. Today, Musab attends Metro Deaf Academy in St. Paul.

Valerie also advocates for the local Muslim community, teaching children and families about deaf culture and ASL. As a board member of the international advocacy group Global Deaf Muslims (GDM) she recently organized a community symposium that drew hundreds of people from the Muslim community to educate them on deaf culture.

I am privileged to know Valerie and her family; Valerie has a smile on her face in both happiness and adversity. I interviewed her after she received this award. Here are her responses to some of my questions:

Zafar: What are your feelings on receiving this award?

Valerie:  There are times when I feel like no one cares about the time, effort and hard work that goes into raising Musab.  There are times when I feel very sad and ask myself, “What’s the point to all that I’m doing?”  When I got this award, it made me realize that someone does care and most of all that someone is Musab.  Receiving this award uplifted me and motivated me to continue to do what I do for Musab and to help others.

Zafar: What inspired you in particular while taking care of your son Musab?

Valerie:  My faith, my love for my son, and appreciation for life inspired me.  I know that no one else would take care of him the way he needs to be taken care of, so I put my all into making him a happy healthy kid.

Zafar: What message do you have for parents who are in a similar situation like yours in caring for their special needs child?

Valerie: My message to other parents would be stay patient and pray a lot.  There will be times when you feel like giving up, but there will also be times that are so wonderful that you wonder how you could have ever gotten by without your little one with special needs. Stay patient because patience is the key, accept help so you can have some down time, and pray a lot.
Zafar: Do you think there is enough awareness in general public about deaf or hard of hearing individuals?

Valerie:  There is not enough awareness in the general public.  I was totally ignorant about hearing loss before my son lost his hearing.  Now that I have a son who is deaf, I’m amazed at how little people know about the needs of individuals with hearing loss and how few can communicate with those who are deaf and hard of hearing.  Also, there is very little awareness about the fact that the community with hearing loss is very diverse and that each individual’s needs can be very different.
Zafar: What would be your recommendation to readers to increase their awareness?

Valerie: I would recommend to readers that they broaden their horizons by visiting a school or two for children with hearing loss and have a tour by the director.  I would also recommend browsing different websites like ASLpro.com where they can learn some sign language, hearinglosseducation.com where they can learn about different types of hearing loss and maybe check out the documentary Sound and Fury, a PBS documentary about a family’s struggle with their newborn’s hearing loss.  I also recommend Googling “history of deaf culture.”  There’s a rich culture in the deaf community that’s vibrant and eye opening. 


Mothers like Valerie are the real heroes of our society. They are the engine that keeps motherhood moving forward from generation to generation.