Danville woman overcame brain disease as infant to become lifelong learner

Published 6:43 pm Monday, March 4, 2019

Editor’s note: Community Treasures is a recurring feature published in conjunction with The Advocate-Messenger’s 2019 Progress edition, which published on Feb. 23. Additional copies are available at newspaper’s office, 330 S. Fourth St., Danville.

Seeing Libby Hulette’s warm smile and sparkling eyes as she diligently works at the Hub Café on Main Street, you’d never know what a difficult start in life she had and what extreme challenges she’s overcome.

Libby is the 56-year-old daughter of Barbara and the late Dick Hulette and lives with her mother in Danville. She’s worked at the Hub part-time for nearly 10 years. Her duties include clearing tables, stocking supplies, mopping floors, washing dishes and sweeping cigarette butts off the sidewalk.

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“I love to clean,” Libby said.

Libby Hulette says she loves working at The Hub cafe in Danville.

She’s learning to greet people on the phone and as they walk through the doors. And Libby takes pride in keeping a kitchen storage closet organized.

But early in Libby’s life, a vicious brain disease nearly prevented her from ever being able to walk and talk, let alone have a job.

While sitting together in their living room, Barbara said Libby was a normal, happy infant, but at the age of about 18 months, she noticed something different in her baby’s eyes. After many trips to doctors and hospitals, and within hours of having surgery to remove what doctors thought was a brain tumor, Libby was diagnosed with a viral brain infection.

“The virus continued to eat away at her brain,” Barbara said. There was no treatment or cure. “The disease took her away.”

After a year, the virus “just went away” Barbara said. But it left Libby unable to move or speak. “It was no longer a medical issue. Now it was an educational issue.”

Through years of patient determination Libby learned to walk again. Once she could walk, “she wanted to learn to ride her bike,” Barbara said.

She recalled she’d sometimes go into the kitchen and cry when she watched Libby practicing on her bike. But Libby never gave up. When she was 16, she was finally able to say she could ride her bike.

It took years for her to learn any task, “in a very slow, slow way,” Barbara said.

Libby insisted she has been able to learn so much because her mother was such a good teacher. “She taught me everything I know!” she said, smiling.

“Libby had the willingness and personality to continue,” Barbara said proudly.

Taking meals to tables is part of Libby’s job at the Hub. She said she’s learning a lot about important life skills.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, there weren’t many special education classes available. Since Barbara already had a degree in education, she chose to go back to school and earned a degree in special education so she could help teach their own daughter, she said.

“We adopted the philosophy to focus on what we can do and not what we can’t do,” Barbara said.

Before moving to Danville from Lexington with her family in 2006, Libby worked for 22 years at two day care centers assisting the staff with babies and toddlers.

In Danville, Libby knew she didn’t want to return to daycare employment, so she took some time off. In 2009, her father unexpectedly died, causing her to withdraw even more, her mother said.

Then one day, Libby’s whole world changed — again.

She had walked to the newly opened Hub Cafe in May 2009, where a long line of customers extended out the door. Libby said someone working there saw her and called out, “‘Libby! Can you come here and help us?’ They needed help right away.”

She’s worked part-time at the Hub ever since.

Working around very young children for so many years kept Libby somewhat sheltered, Mrs. Hulette said. But her experiences at the Hub have taught her “adult responsibilities and enhanced her independence,” Barbara said.

“I have a big smile on my face. I am so happy to be there and so happy to have a job,” Libby said. “I love it; I really do!”

She said she’s learned so much from Jason Cullen, who now owns the cafe. “Jason is an amazing boss,” Libby said. “Jason has rules. I’ve learned so much from Jason.”

For example, she’s learned how to properly greet new customers and is practicing her polite phone answering skills. She’s also beginning to learn how to divide tips from the tip jar between all the workers.

Barbara said Libby has “accepted the way she is and she continues to learn and to grow.”

At home, Libby  enjoys coloring and doing word search puzzles in her free time.

Libby said people are never too old to learn. “Our learning isn’t over yet!”

Libby enjoys bowling and going to the movies. Now that she’s more independent and self-confident, Libby also enjoys walking to CVS to do some shopping. “That’s my second home,” she said, laughing.

Libby has also become her mother’s assistant. “She’s my arms and legs a lot of the time,” Barbara said. When they shop at Kroger, Libby practices reading labels and selects items on their grocery list. She also keeps busy around the house cleaning and folding laundry.

And when the neighbors need a little extra help lifting luggage or with small chores that they can’t handle, Libby is always happy to help out, she said.

“We all need a little help on some level,” Barbara said. “Libby is helpful to society, and she’s an asset in my life. She is absolutely a miracle.”