Behind every face, is a story.
Behind every heart, is what makes it beat.
Behind every father, is a dad who loves his children.
Behind the tough exterior that is Joey Porter, is all of the above.
Because Joey Porter is far more than the Steelers’ outside linebackers coach, far more than a former NFL standout who played every game with fire.
He is a loving husband and father of four, including a daughter Jasmine, for whom he has shed many tears in the past over the battles she has faced, but today does everything in his power to help her and others in similar situations fight their battles.
Porter and his wife Christy have four children, Jayla, Jasmine, Joey and Jacob. But it’s Jasmine who has tugged at their heartstrings from the time she was born.
“I noticed when Jasmine was a one-year old, she wasn’t walking around and Jayla (who is two years older) was already walking around at one,” said Porter. “I think she was one when she barely started crawling, and they start crawling at six months. They kept telling us developmentally delayed. We said what does that mean? She was going to be a little slower paced than Jayla was. Everything we did we compared to where Jayla was at six months, nine months, a year, and two years old. Jayla was the chart. We knew the stages. Jasmine was never hitting the stages.
“They kept telling us developmentally delayed to the point where we were like, no, we aren’t buying that any more. It has to be something else. The doctors at the hospitals here, at Children’s Hospital, they kept running tests and we found out she was autistic. That opened our eyes a lot. It at least gave us something that we know what’s going on and we can help her from this point.”
While it opened their eyes, it also brought tears to them. It brought heartache. It brought fear for what would come for Jasmine.
“When they said autistic, I had heard some things about autism, but I remember ‘Rain Man’ was autistic,” said Porter. “I was like, I knew he was real smart, he remembered numbers and all. But that is just one version. There are a lot of different versions of being autistic. What she has is totally different.
The heartache and pain turned into something so much more, though. It turned into a passion. A passion for helping not just their precious daughter, but helping others.
The Porters had it good in some ways. They had insurance, they had financial stability, and they had resources right at their fingertips to get the help they needed. What they realized, though, was everyone wasn’t that lucky. They learned of families in their hometown of Bakersfield, California, that weren’t able to receive the same care they could secure for Jasmine. And even they didn’t have a place for Jasmine to go when they were still in Bakersfield.
With that, the Porters were on a mission. A mission of love. A mission to help through the opening of the Jasmine Nyree Day Center in Bakersfield, a place where children from kindergarten through sixth grade could get the attention, the teaching, the development they needed and not for just a few hours a day like some places, but all day. Once that was launched, a second one came about, encompassing the older kids all the way through high school. And then a third, just outside of Bakersfield, schools Christy poured her heart into.
“As we grew with it, it made you really understand what other people are going through,” said Porter. “We happen to be lucky enough to have the means and to know people to get stuff done. There are a lot of people that have it worse than we do. They don’t have anywhere to go to get help for their kids. That’s how we started getting really into it.
“A lot of schools that have schools with special needs, they don’t take care of them for a full day. For a parent that is working from 8 to 5, you can’t take a daughter or son to school for three hours and then leave work to come get them. It just doesn’t work like that. So we started a school for Jasmine. We have some kids that have been with us since the day the building opened. It’s good that you know you are helping other people, other families going through the situation. It’s not just autism. Our school is kids of all needs, downs syndrome, deaf, blind. Any kid with special needs we take.”
The goal now is to open a fourth center, one for adults who still require the same care, the same attention. Because for many families, these are lifelong journeys. And it’s not just through the centers he is giving back. Joey and Christy served as the honorary co-chairs for the Pittsburgh International Auto Show this weekend at the Red CARpet Gala. And while Porter is like any other guy and loves cars and trucks, this was about a whole lot more. The event benefits the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and Allegheny Valley School, a school that services children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and a school that benefits from the sale of the Terrible Towel.
“It teamed up perfectly,” said Porter. “I told them we would support anything that supports autism. It’s a great situation to help and raise awareness and let them know my situation. I think it’s a partnership that is going to grow and get better and better.”
Just like the Porter family has grown through the trials and tribulations they have been through over the past 16 years, and trials that will continue for years to come. It’s gone from young kids not understanding what was going on with their sister, to a family that will do everything in their power to protect their Jasmine.
“What really kind of hurt was Jacob, my youngest, he knew right away,” said Porter, recalling what it was like 10 years ago. “When he was two and his sister was six, he would be helping her. I remember sitting in the kitchen and I was watching my two-year old toddler just looking at his sister and he could tell something was not right. She doesn’t talk, she makes sounds.
“We are all going to do our part to take care of Jazzy. It made them the biggest protectors in the world. They take it so serious. As soon as they have friends come over they tell them my sister is autistic, don’t stare at her. I am upstairs and I hear them debriefing their friends, because they take it so serious. Don’t ask for help. They know how to manage her. They take her to the park, to the swings. They are so good with her. It makes them appreciate everything. There are times I catch them being lazy, and they aren’t giving their best, if they aren’t applying themselves all the way, I tell them they are missing out on an opportunity. Jazzy would love to do it just once. That always whips them back into shape and puts it in to perspective how blessed we are.
“It has made us grow closer as a family. Now we don’t worry about what she can’t do. It’s all about creating what she can do, what we can teach her next. It’s past crying and feeling sorry for ourselves. Now it’s like Jazzy can do this. She is 16 and she is learning more than what we thought she would be at this point and time. What is she doing next? That is the new thing we are doing.”
It’s those steps, those small things, things we all take for granted that make them continually count their blessings.
“If we are gone for a week my daughter will be like Jazzy can do this now,” said Porter. “It’s like she is picking up some more stuff as far as memories and where stuff is at. She knows when she is outside in the snow walking down to the bus. She hates that walk. It’s either the crunching of the snow or feeling like she is going to slip. It’s little things she does where I think she knows more than we think. That’s always exciting.”