It was minutes before the high school graduation ceremony, and Tom Terwey limped slowly into the Minneapolis Convention Center, leaning on a cane as sweat poured down his forehead.
Normally, Terwey’s teenage daughter, Amanda, would have been at his side, steadying his burly frame made wobbly by damaged knee joints. But on this night Amanda was onstage, preparing for the biggest moment of her young life as one of her school’s commencement speakers.
“Tonight, we celebrate how far we have come,” Amanda said through tears as the audience rose to its feet. “But this is not the end.”
The June ceremony wasn’t just a milepost for Amanda, it was a major turning point for the entire Terwey clan. Over the years, the close-knit family of 10 had grown increasingly dependent on the soft-spoken but resolute teenager to serve as caregiver and parent, and now the family was about to lose her.
Amanda, 18, has long looked after her seven younger brothers, much like any big sister. But her workload intensified six years ago after Tom, then a maintenance worker for the city of Minneapolis, blew out a knee while shutting off a water pipe. Tom, who is now 47, kept working until the cartilage on both knees wore out, leaving him mostly housebound and unable to hold a full-time job. Years of cortisone injections have left a circle of red needle marks around his knees.
With her father barely able to walk and her stepmother working long hours outside the home, Amanda’s life changed dramatically.
Each afternoon, after finishing classes at Minnesota Transitions charter high school, Amanda would hurry home to their crowded house in south Minneapolis to begin her duties as family caregiver: cooking dinner, helping her siblings do homework, breaking up fights, signing school permission slips, and preparing the younger boys for bed.
Many nights, Amanda wouldn’t get to her own studies until after 10 p.m. — at times, too worn out to concentrate.
“Just try doing homework while watching a houseful of kids,” Amanda said. “It’s impossible.”
Amanda still managed to earn a 3.2 grade-point average. But everything else suffered. Once an avid volleyball player, she gave up sports and other extracurricular activities. When her friends wanted to hang out at a new restaurant or go see a movie, Amanda had to explain that she was expected to take care of her family.
Sometimes the burden overwhelmed her. A week before graduation, after learning that she could not attend “senior dinner” with her classmates, Amanda broke down and sobbed in the office of her school’s social worker.
“I get frustrated because my friends get frustrated,” she said. “But there gets to be a point where you’re so used to missing out on stuff that you don’t even think about it.”
That, however, could soon change. This fall, Amanda plans to start classes at St. Cloud State University. She began packing the day after graduation, piling clothes and other belongings in tidy stacks on the front porch.
For the first time since his injury, her father began looking for a wheelchair and a personal care attendant who could help with the chores. “Amanda did a heckuva lot around here,” Terwey said, staring out the window. “We’re definitely going to miss her.”