Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and start all over if you want things to get better. That’s just what Michael Baker did this past July. The 39-year-old lifelong Floridian and single parent sold his few possessions, left his many friends and extended family, gathered his two sons and took the train to Santa Fe, arriving with just the clothes on their backs.
But before leaving he had done his research, made a few calls and decided that New Mexico and Casa Familia was the best place for them to start anew. When they showed up, they were welcomed with open arms.
“From the moment we knocked on the door, we have had nothing but love, generosity, encouragement and assistance,” Mike says. “Besides a place to stay, they provided us with clothes, gave me all the leads I needed and pointed me in the right direction. Now I have a job, an apartment, some furnishings and my kids are enrolled in a great school. I can’t say enough about the place and the staff.”
Mike grew up with eight sisters in a “crazy” home environment. His mother died when he was 14, and his father was always busy running his barbecue business. Mike became a certified welder, got married, ran a lawn service and then inherited the barbecue business when his father died. His first son, Tyler, was born 10 years ago with severe disabilities. Jordan, 8, came two years later.
“Tyler has a rare form of infantile spasms similar to epilepsy,” Mike says. “When he was eight months old, he was having 75 to 100 spasms a day. Steroids controlled the seizures for a while, but over time the brain changes its patterns and the spasms return.”
At one-and-a-half-years old, Tyler became the youngest person in Florida to have a vagus nerve stimulator implanted. Similar to a pacemaker, it generates pulses of electricity to his vagus nerve to create an orderly pattern of electrical impulses within the brain and other parts of his body.
While this has greatly helped, Tyler still has seizures. When that happens, Mike has a hand-held magnetic device that he puts next to the stimulator to generate immediate electrical pulses to stop or reduce their severity. Despite all this, Tyler has undergone three surgeries, can’t walk or talk and needs a feeding tube.
“It’s been a challenge and it’s always going to be,” Mike says. “But God only puts things on you that you can handle. Tyler’s needs have made me a better person and a better father.”
The stress of the situation hastened the breakup of his marriage. At first the separation was amicable with both agreeing that Mike should have custody of the boys. But one night, his wife came to Mike’s place and assaulted him with pepper spray and a taser. Though she was arrested for domestic violence, Mike dropped the charges not wanting to send the mother of his children to jail. However the police, fearful of what might happen next, advised him to leave the state to protect the boys.
“When I looked around for a place to go, New Mexico fit the bill,” Mike says. “There are specialists available for Tyler, and the elevation coupled with low humidity is good for his condition since excessive moisture in his lungs makes him susceptible to pneumonia.”
Once Mike and the boys arrived at Casa Familia, the staff kicked into action. They helped him transfer Tyler’s Social Security benefits from Florida to New Mexico, connected him with doctors and specialists, recommended El Camino Real Academy for the boys because of its special-education programs, contacted Adelante for help with school supplies, suggested potential apartments and employers, and referred him to Life Link for rental assistance.
“From day one, Mike was incredible,” says Kehala Two Bulls, program manager at Casa Familia. “If every one of our guests accomplished what he did, I’d be out of work.” Now working at McDonald’s and living nearby, Mike has bigger ambitions. He wants to reopen his barbecue business here with a food truck.
“You’ve got to try my slow-cooked ribs, brisket and pulled pork,” he says. “When I cook, I put my heart into it. There’s no real southern barbecue in this town, and I know my Baker Boys Southern Barbecue will be a big hit. So I’m looking for some start-up funding – not a handout but an investment.
“I know it will take time, but Santa Fe has been so good to me and my kids that I want to give back to the community. And the best way I can do that is through my cooking.”
In the meantime, Mike is working hard to make ends meet and create a better life for his boys. His daily routine is to wake up, make breakfast for the boys, dress Tyler and get him in his wheelchair, take the boys to the bus stop for school, go to work, get off to meet the bus and take them home, cook dinner, give Tyler his bath, then put him to bed.
“I’ve been through a lot with Tyler,” he says. “The nights in the hospital, the nights at home without really sleeping listening to hear if his spasm alarm goes off. But it’s really made me look at life differently – the way you look at people, the way you treat them.”Even at eight, Jordan has been a big help.
“It’s been rough for him because he can’t play with his brother,” Mike says. “But it’s so great to see him take care of Tyler. He’s the best brother in the world.“My father was there, but not like he was supposed to be,” Mike says. “That’s why I want to be there for my boys. I just want to be the best I can be and make my kids proud. I think I’m on the right path.”