Elks leaves legacy of inspiring hope

Published 3:58 pm Tuesday, September 5, 2023

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By Clark Curtis, For the Washington Daily News

James “Phillip” Elks was born on December 14, 1953 to Dalton and Shirley Elks of Chocowinity. At first he seemed like any other vibrant, healthy baby. “We didn’t know anything was wrong with him until he was not crawling or walking like other babies,” said Shirley. “We had to take him to a new doctor as our family doctor was out of town. And that’s when we received the news.”

“The doctor told my parents that ‘you have a Mongolian idiot and he is never going to do anything but sit in the corner and slobber on his shirt. He won’t even be able to tie his shoes,’” said Phil’s sister Donna.

Donna said that news was the biggest motivator her father could have ever received. This at a time when parents of children with Down Syndrome were being told to not even take their children home. She said her dad told the family, “That doctor did me the biggest favor of my life. He started me off with absolutely no hope. So anything that Phil will be able to accomplish will be a jewel.”

The Elks ended up speaking with 14 different doctors and would finally connect with one, a female doctor, who explained to them that Phil had Down Syndrome, and with the right help he would be able to progress and learn to do things. “I was a nervous wreck,” said Shirley. “This had all come as a big shock as we didn’t know anything about Down Syndrome. So my husband Dalton was doing all that he could to try and get us some help.”

Through those efforts the Elks would connect and befriend Ruth and Phil Roberson, owners of the Roberson Beverage Company in Washington. They too had a son named Phil who was six months older, and lived with Down Syndrome. “The Roberson’s were the first people we ever met who also had a child with Down Syndrome,” said Shirley. “And that’s when my help began. Ruth took me under her wing and told me everything she knew. Phil and Dalton searched the county over trying to find something these kids could do, as the public schools would not accept them. With nothing available they were able to establish the Opportunity School.”

The Opportunity School was located in a large house at Bug Park. It was intended to give the two Phil’s and other mentally and physically challenged children in Washington an opportunity for socialization. The first teacher, fresh out of college was, “Cack” Hodges. “Phil Roberson paid her salary out of his own pocket,” said Shirley. “The other families came together and did what they could to help. It also gave the moms of the children a bit of a break during the day. As my husband Dalton always said, “Phil Roberson had the money, and I had the mouth.”

Added Sharon, “It was such a simple thing, but it made a huge difference in the lives of those kids and their families.” The Opportunity School would go on and evolve into what we know today as the Beaufort County Developmental Center (BCDC).

When Phillip reached the age of 12, the Opportunity School had served its purpose, so again the Elks were faced with the tough decision of what next, as there were still no options yet available in Washington. That is when they learned of the Caswell Center in Kinston, North Carolina. Dr. Ira May Hardy, who had a child with intellectual disabilities, established the center in 1913. To this day the state operated center provides services and support to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and complex behavioral challenges. Wanting what was best for Philip, the Elks had him placed in the center. Unable to see him for the first six weeks he was there, his mother would sit and grieve as if she had lost a child. “I would put his dinner plate on the table at night, look at it, and just start crying,” said Shirley.

The Elks were looked down upon by many members of the community who said they had “dumped” Phil when they sent him to the center. “He never would have received the help that he needed had they not stepped forward to do so,” said Donna.

For the next 20 years the Caswell Center would be Philip’s home away from home. He would return home every other weekend and on holidays, and special family occasions. The Elks would drive over on Sundays to spend time with him as well. It was there that Phillip finally learned to talk, developed life skills, became semi-independent, learned how to swim, participated in Special Olympics, and learned how to write, as the Elks learned unexpectedly. “We had gone over one weekend to visit Phil,” said Phillip’s sister Sharon. “The inside windows of the car had fogged up and we noticed him messing around on the glass. We then realized he was writing his name with his finger. We all immediately broke down crying.”

Phillip’s life skills were always on full display when he would come home for the weekend. “He always wanted to be in control of what was happening with him,” said his sister-in-law and caretaker for 8 years at the Elks’ Chocowinity home, Lori. “He showed me how to take care of him, how to help him in the shower, fold his clothes, and to make sure they were all color coordinated before hanging them together in the closet,” she said with a big smile.

There were also times when he would spend a lot of time in his room by himself when he came home for the weekend. “He was unpacking,” said Sharon. “He would not come out until everything was folded neatly and placed in the drawers. It looked like a Belk’s display right before a sale. That same room is where his love and affinity for Elvis Presley remains on full display.”

In his later years at Caswell, there was a move to get residents back into their communities. He was the only one with Down Syndrome who qualified to live in an independent living group home there at Caswell. Eventually he came back to Beaufort County and moved into the Westside Place group home that Phillip Roberson had built in Beaufort County in order to accommodate the needs of his own son. “While back in Beaufort County he would go to the Beaufort County Developmental Center for workshops and even did part-time work for several years at Stitch Works in Washington,” said Donna. “He loved people. He would walk up to a complete stranger, stick out his hand and say, “Hi, I’m Phil Elks.” Eventually, he would move back with my mother and father.”

It was at the BCDC that Elena Cameron, the current chief executive officer of BCDC, first met Phil. “I was fortunate enough to have met Phil on several occasions. Anyone who knew him always spoke of how full of life that he was and what a joy it was to be around him. He didn’t see any wrong in anyone. He was a friend to everyone and everyone friends with him.”

In 2014 Dalton Elks passed away. “After my husband’s funeral we all came home to sit down at the table,” said Shirley. “Phil had always had a chair at the side of the table. But on this day he went to the head of the table where his dad always sat and said “I’m the head of the house now.” “I said, ‘you sit in this chair,’ and he did so for as long as he could.”

On July 2nd, 2023 Phil passed away after an ongoing battle with the early onslaught of Alzheimer’s, as well as pneumonia, which were both brought on by Down Syndrome. Leaving behind family and friends who loved him dearly and all say their lives were made richer by having known him.

“My brother Phil Roberson and Phil Elks were like brothers and remained friends their entire lives,” said Phyllis Roberson. “I remember when a friend of mine and I took them to Myrtle Beach for a week to celebrate their 50th birthdays. They both loved Elvis, so we took them to see two Elvis impersonators and they were simply in heaven. We also turned them loose by themselves at a go-cart park and they had a blast. Phil Elks always had a smile on his face and love in his heart for everyone.”

“I’m so proud of my parents as they made life so much better for Phil and were a huge asset to others facing the same challenges by leading by example,” said Donna. “They were not afraid to take Phil out and be seen with him in public. They certainly paved the way for others”

“I was three years younger than Phil and he was always my hero,” said Sharon. “I followed him all over the place.”

“Phil and his mama had an unbreakable bond,” said Lori. “She was his biggest fan and Phil hers. She and Phil were best friends. She never criticized him or complained to him. She was the perfect mother with him. She is soft spoken and quiet. The only thing she does loud is her love. Phil knew he was number one in her heart.”

“It has been up and down over the years, but it has all been wonderful,” said Shirley. “It was a learning experience from the very beginning. It makes me proud that we did what we had to do and also had the opportunity to help other families going through the same things we were.” And while staring off as if she were looking and smiling at Phil, “We loved to hug and kiss. He was my sweetheart and it was a blessing to have him in our life.”

“Beaufort County is very fortunate to have had the driving forces of the Roberson’s and the Elks’ to be the leaders in advocacy for their families and others,” said Cameron. “They are living proof that if you tell someone something can’t be done, they will step forward and defy the odds. All they wanted was normalcy and opportunity for their children as well as the families faced with the same challenges.”