A lifetime of exceeding expectations

Local man with developmental disability earns employee of the year honor

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

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When Bracken Harden was born with the umbilical cord wrapped several times around his neck, causing organic brain damage and dyslexia, doctors told his mother, Sharon Harden-Coplin, that her son would never be able to tie his own shoes.

"In the beginning, the experts broke my heart," said Harden-Coplin. "They told me Bracken had to be institutionalized."

She didn't buy their prognosis -- and she didn't treat her son any differently from her other four children. She expected Harden to try to do everything his siblings did. At 18 months, he still was not walking, and Harden-Coplin was expecting another baby. She told her son he'd have to walk because she couldn't carry him and the new baby. She worked with him, and he learned to walk.

The elementary school principal put Harden-Coplin in touch with the Cerebral Palsy Center in Seattle, which works with children who are developmentally delayed. For two years, Bracken Harden attended the school, coming home on weekends and holidays. The center helped Harden, but it also taught his family how to help him succeed.

"They taught me that I should talk about everything I was doing, to say each step aloud so Bracken was constantly hearing a flow of words because he learns through repetition," said his mother from her Woodland home. "After awhile, it was like a light came on for him and he could do it." Harden's siblings also helped him to learn through repetition.

That hard work by Harden and his entire family paid off. Now 42, Harden holds a job, lives in his own Vancouver apartment and pays his own bills. On October 10 he was recognized as the Clark County Employee of the Year at a ceremony in recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Harden was nominated for the award by Norm Goldman, chief executive officer of Goldman & Associates, an agency that helps support employment of individuals with developmental disabilities. For the past 22 years, Goldman has worked with Harden and his employers. Harden has worked at the Walmart in Hazel Dell for more than a decade, working his way up from courtesy clerk to working in the garden center and stocking shelves throughout the store.

Harden, who studied horticulture in high school, said, "I knew something about plants, but I had to learn more."

"Walmart showed Bracken a lot of respect and encouragement, and he continued to grow," Goldman said. "I don't want employers to think that by hiring an individual with a developmental disability, they're doing a favor for this person. Bracken is a dependable, loyal worker whose employment positively impacts the employee, the employer, other employees and the public," he said.

Mindee Mortensen, Walmart store manager, said, "Bracken is a talented individual. You just have to tap into his abilities."

Preparing for the award ceremony was a family project. Bracken Harden's older brother, Scott Harden, wrote a short speech for him. His younger brother, Justin Harden, listened while he practiced delivering his speech. The brothers grew up together picking berries, playing Little League baseball and attending Ridgefield High School. Now Harden plays on an adult recreational softball team with Justin Harden.

"Bracken has been the wind beneath my wings all of my life," said Justin Harden.

Goldman was included in the Harden family's celebration dinner after the awards ceremony.

"I've never seen such family togetherness: parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews there to support Bracken," Goldman said. "He has his own cheering section."

"Bracken's come a long way from that first diagnosis, when I was told he'd never tie his own shoes," his mother said. "He's had a lot to overcome. He thinks no one should ever give up -- because he hasn't."