A dynamic trio

Connie Rice, left, and her daughter Crystal Rice, join Jamie McGrath at Rice’s Benton Harbor home last week. Rice was recently named the Area Agency on Aging Caregiver of the Year, while McGrath received the Dorothy Richmond Award for Customer Service.

BENTON HARBOR — It’s not too often that one household is the center for two community awards. 

That’s what happened recently when the Area Agency on Aging recognized outstanding individuals during its 45th anniversary celebration.

Connie Rice, of Benton Harbor, received the Caregiver of the Year award for 35 years of looking after her daughter, Crystal, who has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. Rice also took care of her mother and father at home before they passed away. She raised a son, Christopher, along with Crystal, and has four grandchildren.

Earlier this year, Rice welcomed U.S. Rep. Fred Upton to her home to discuss the needs of caregivers.

Jamie McGrath, a case manager with the agency who has worked with the Rice family for four years, was honored with the Dorothy Richmond Customer Service award, voted unanimously by her peers.

McGrath said she is impressed not only with Rice’s selflessness in providing care for Crystal 24 hours a day, seven days a week in their home, but also for her recognition that she needs to take care of herself, as well.

It’s what Rice calls “Connie time.”

Many people feel guilty about asking for help, McGrath said, but getting support and time for yourself helps everybody.

“You have to feed the soul,” McGrath said. “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

It’s a mutual admiration society, as far as Rice is concerned. As a case manager, McGrath, who has worked in her field for 32 years, makes sure that the family has the materials and services it needs to help Crystal stay at home.

Connie said she knew Jamie was special during a home visit. She was standing in her garden and had a question.

“She literally got into the garden, with her shoes on and everything!” Rice recalled. “I just thought ‘Wow. That’s awesome.’”

Rice, who receives aid through the Mi Choice Waiver program, said she has worked with the Area Agency on Aging for about 11 years and has had other case managers, but McGrath is special. “Jamie is one of a kind to me.”

Herald-Palladium Staff Writer John Matuszak spoke with Connie Rice about her life with Crystal.

Tell us a little about Crystal’s situation.

She’s a 35-year-old who does not walk or talk. She has cerebral palsy, and she has had scoliosis that affected her spine. When she was born she weighed two pounds, two ounces, and she was not fully developed. She spent three months in the hospital, in an incubator. They said she would be examined at one year, and that she might not be able to talk, which is what happened.

What are the challenges in taking care of Crystal?

I don’t have any challenges. I love what I do. When you do something you love, it’s not a challenge. ... It’s all about strength. God gives me the strength to be happy with it and to do all I can to make and keep another person happy. God will keep you happy. ... Crystal is such a happy baby, I call her that, she’s still my baby.

If you didn’t have the support through the Area Agency on Aging, where do you think Crystal might be?

If I didn’t have the support she would probably be in an institution or a home. Jamie took that place, she stood in that place so I would not have to put her in one of those places, and so I could keep her in my own home.

What do you like to do during “Connie time?”

When the caregiver is here I can go to a movie, or go shopping for things we need, or drive to South Bend and get away. It’s awesome to get away, and it’s awesome to be here, too. It’s good to get away sometimes.

What do you and Crystal enjoy doing together?

Me and Crystal do a lot of things together. We watch movies, and you see the popcorn machine there. We fish. We go to the park and feed the birds. She loves music. I have it on 24 hours for her.

What is her favorite kind of music?

Gospel. That’s both of us.

What did you want Rep. Fred Upton to learn from his visit here?

I hope that he learned to treat everybody equally, to treat everybody the same, and to do what’s right. God puts people in high positions to do what’s right.

What would you say to encourage people to seek out the help they and their families might need?

I would say that before you let things get too far in trying to take things into your own hands, call the agency and get another person to help. ... I’m just grateful that it all came together and that God let it all come together. God will not give you more than you can bear. If he puts somebody in your path, that’s the job he has for you to do. Love and patience. Love is the thing. You have to love what you do, whether it’s as a caregiver or in any position on this earth.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak