Clarens Philippe loves posing for the camera. But he can’t tell you that with words. Instead, he has to use grunts and gestures when asking to have his picture taken.
The 28-year-old has a permanently locked jaw, which has left him speech-impaired. After his parents moved him and two younger sisters to Miami from Haiti when he was 8 years old, it took doctors two years to fully diagnose the cause. They found a crucial part of his right brain doesn’t work, preventing his mind from functioning at a level higher than that of a 7-year-old.
Because his jaw won’t shut, he has difficulty swallowing and drools excessively, causing him to keep a towel hanging out of his mouth for most of the day. He also has seizures, but daily medication has kept these under control.
“He can’t talk,” said his father, Ronald Philippe. “He cannot tell me what he’s feeling. He can’t tell me what’s happening.”
The family wants to help him communicate by investing in a DynaVox speech-generating device that would allow Philippe to tap buttons that voice various words, needs and emotions.
“Whatever we have to buy him,” his father said, “we’ll save money for it little by little because we don’t want him to miss anything. But we’re low-income people, you know?”
For now, Philippe uses a sort of personal sign language to communicate. For instance, he pretends to cradle a baby with his arms when referring to his youngest sister, Suhail, who’s 10 years old.
Despite his speech impairment, Philippe is good at making friends. He works by packing spices into containers at Goodwill Industries’ Work Activities Center, where he’s popular, says counselor Sarah Pila.
His mother, Margaret Philippe, remembers dropping him off at North Miami Beach Senior High School three years ago, right before he graduated. She watched her son get out the car, run to a police vehicle and knock on the window. His mother was rushing to stop him when Philippe turned around and assured her the cop was his friend.
Sure enough, Philippe has many friends in law enforcement. Another time, his father got pulled over for a broken tail light. When the officer approached the vehicle, Clarens immediately recognized him and teased the officer for pulling them over. No ticket was issued.
Ronald Philippe says his son is very independent. He watches Clarens help around the house, bringing in groceries from the car and taking out the trash.
How to help: Wish Book is trying to help this family and hundreds of others in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.
During his free time, Philippe likes to watch TV and draw superheroes. He keeps a notebook full of his illustrations and a list of shows, as well as where to stream them. His favorite characters are the Power Rangers and the Flash.
He also pays attention to what his family members like to watch.
“He knows what Mommy likes, and he knows what I like,” his father said. “If you come and sit down with him, he changes it to your shows. He gives you priority.”
But, his family says, Philippe can sometimes be too friendly. During the height of the pandemic, his father didn’t let him leave the house at all, in fearing that he’d get too close to people by trying to hug them.
Now, as the pandemic fades, Philippe is training to be a tailor. His parents believe one day he’ll be sewing military clothes.
And, they say, although it may take him twice as long as some others to learn a new trade, they’re grateful for the part he plays at Goodwill Industries.
“We were both professionals in Haiti,” his father said, referring to himself and his wife. “We were living a normal life but, because of him, we thought it would be better here — and it is better. There’s more of a future here for a disabled child than there is in any small country.”
Pila, the counselor, says Goodwill nominated Philippe to be a Wish Book recipient for the simple reason that he deserves it. She says all he wants to do is to communicate with people, and right now he’s unable to do that.
“He has a goofy sense of humor,” said Pila, “and he enjoys making people laugh. He’s just a really friendly guy.”
How to help
To help this nominee and 150 other nominees who are in need this year:
▪ To donate, use the coupon found in the newspaper or pay securely online through www.MiamiHerald.com/wishbook
▪ For more information, call 305-376-2906 or emailWishbook@MiamiHerald.com
▪ The most requested items are often laptops and tablets for school, furniture, and accessible vans
▪ Read all Wish Book stories on www.MiamiHerald.com/wishbook
This story was produced in conjunction with FIU’s South Florida Media Network