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Farah’s ‘helping hands’ aid disabled man

  • Kent Converse of Colrain with Farah, a service monkey from "Helping Hands," who has been trained to fetch objects, open doors, turn on light switches or turn the pages of a book for Converse, who was paralyzed following a car accident. (Submitted photo)

    Kent Converse of Colrain with Farah, a service monkey from "Helping Hands," who has been trained to fetch objects, open doors, turn on light switches or turn the pages of a book for Converse, who was paralyzed following a car accident. (Submitted photo)

  • Kent Converse of Colrain with Farah, a service monkey from "Helping Hands," who has been trained to fetch objects, open doors, turn on light switches or turn the pages of a book for Converse, who was paralyzed following a car accident. (Submitted photo)

COLRAIN — On Aug. 2, 2006, Kent Converse was driving home in a hot car during a three-day heat wave, when he passed out from heat exhaustion and crashed the car.

“I don’t remember passing out,” he said. “I don’t remember going to the hospital. My arms were tingly, numb. My hands were numb. My neck popped. There was fracture, and I was paralyzed since then.”

Converse spent the next year in the hospital and in a rehabilitation center. By the time he was able to go home, his life was not the same.

“I came home on my birthday — August 17,” he recalls. “I had really prepared myself, and I was looking forward to it. But since coming home, I’d developed other problems that knocked me down.”

Converse — a former chef, carpenter and building manager, who had always worked with his hands — now had limited use of them. He was also living with pain and feeling depressed.

“I felt stuck and isolated, even though people were here,” said Converse. “People don’t understand what you go though, and there was no way of conveying how I felt.”

Among the physical limitations of using a wheelchair, and having only partial use of your hands, is the difficulty of opening and closing doors, turning light switches off and on, and picking up any dropped item — a cell phone or a TV remote — when you are in a wheelchair.

That’s where “Farah” comes in.

Kent’s wife, Nancy, was reading the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation’s “Paralysis Resource Guide,” when she spotted an item about Helping Hands, a Boston-based nonprofit group that provides trained “monkey helpers” for the disabled.

Founded in 1979, Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled Inc. breeds, raises and trains capuchin monkeys to provide daily aid to people with spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and to disabled veterans who now use wheelchairs due to loss of limbs and mobility because of war wounds.

Capuchin monkeys are used because of their intelligence, dexterity and their size — they only weigh between 5 to 8 pounds. They have a life span of about 40 years, according to Megan Talbert, executive director of the organization. Talbert recently spoke at a Greenfield Community College Senior Symposia about the program.

About 55 monkeys are training right now, and Helping Hands typically places eight to 12 monkeys a year with suitable recipients. “One per month is our target goal,” said Talbert. “There have been 160 placements over the past 30 years.”

The monkeys are trained to do simple tasks, like turning the pages of a book or newspaper, turning lights off and on, and picking up things that a wheelchair-user has dropped and may not be able to get from their chair. They are eventually trained by trainers in wheelchairs, so that they become accustomed to the equipment. Also, when brought into someone’s home, they know immediately who to go to.

When Farah came to the Converse home in March 2009, once out of her carrier, she immediately went to Kent, climbed his shoulders, and began “grooming” his hair.

“She knew right away, she was there for Kent,” said his wife.

During “monkey college,” said Talbert, the trainers learn “how strong a monkey is, and whether they get along better with a man or a woman,” she said.

The cost to raise, train and place the helper monkeys is about $40,000 per monkey, according to Talbert, but the recipients are not charged money for them.

Choosing the right monkey for each person who needs one is a little like running a dating service, says Talbert. “This is not a one-size-fits-all situation,” she said.

Some monkeys, for instance, want a lot of cuddling, while others fidget and want to be active all the time.

“The monkeys bond with you,” she said, noting that the benefits are “probably 80 percent relationship and 20 percent tasks” performed by the monkeys.

But filmed testimonies that Talbert showed at GCC showed recipients whose faces lit up when they talked about what a difference their helper monkey has brought into their lives.

However, some monkeys adjust slowly, and Helping Hands offers a lot of telephone support for new recipients who have not yet bonded with their new service animal.

Also, there are strict rules for keeping the animal.

Because capuchins are prone to diabetes, they are not allowed to eat sweet foods — even sweet fruits such as grapes are not recommended. They eat “monkey chow” and have occasional treats, such as peanut butter or an apple slice.

They are not allowed to give any kind of medical aid — such as opening a prescription bottle. They do not eat at the table with humans, so that they don’t take food from their human.

The Converses keep tall cages for Farah both in Kent’s bedroom and in the kitchen. When it’s dinner time, they put her in her kitchen cage, where she eats her monkey chow while they eat their meal. “She’s a very sociable creature,” says Nancy.

The person receiving a helper monkey must have an able-bodied human helper who can take care of the monkey — clean the monkey and its cage, feed it, etc. The monkeys are potty-trained and they go back to their cages when they have to go. The bottom of the cages are easy to clean.

Also, they are given to recipients who are mostly home-bound. The helper monkeys are not to be treated as pets; they are not supposed to be taken out to public places, where they may be frightened of strangers and unfamiliar environments.

When Nancy Converse goes to work, at Hawlemont Regional School, Farah stays home with Kent, but goes back into her cage when a home-care aid arrives.

Nancy says Farah gets possessive of Kent if somebody else hands him something.

Farah is 29 years old, and for 15 years, she “worked” for a man in Ohio. When that man died, Farah was returned to Helping Hands and eventually placed with the Converses.

At first the Converses worried that Farah — named after Farah Faucett because of her “big hair” — would be in mourning. But capuchin monkeys “live in the moment,” says Nancy. She said the monkeys are very affectionate but are able to make new bonds. At first, Farah was a little stand-offish with Nancy, who bathes her twice a week, and takes care of her. But now, they’re family.

“It’s funny,” says Kent. “She’s (Farah’s) most happy when the three of us are together.”

“Helping Hands told us the relationship is just going to get closer,” said Nancy. “I didn’t know what that meant until it happened.”

“At the same time,” Nancy continued, “if I help Kent, she’ll jump on me. That’s Farah’s job.”

Online information about Helping Hands is available at:

www.monkeyhelpers.org

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