Although his voice has always been compromised, 21-year-old Lance Newby has been able to communicate with the world since he was 6.
An electronic device gives him a way to "talk," a necessity because Newby -- a special-needs student at Weatherford High School -- has limited writing skills and knows minimal language.
But for two weeks, his world was "devastated," said his mother, Regina Harris.
On Jan. 4, Newby's DynaVox V device was either lost or stolen while he was at school.
On Tuesday, the DynaVox was returned to the school, minus its memory card and a little worse for wear.
Harris said her son not only regained his "voice," but he also gained a lot of new friends across the country who had learned of his two-week plight.
"It's a fabulous way that people have come together," Harris said.
As for getting his DynaVox back, she said, "Lance is ecstatic."
He demonstrated it Wednesday night, typing "Hi," which the machine then spoke for him.
Missing his voice
Newby relies heavily on the device, which helps people with speech and language disabilities.
He got the customized unit in March 2008, Harris said. It allows him to call up pictures that communicate his needs, such as asking for food, making phone calls and playing games that require a voice such as Go Fish. It tells people that he is allergic to peaches and has asthma. It can even open a garage door.
It is Newby's constant companion.
"Without it, he was lost," Harris said. "He had no speech capability and no way to communicate."
Unfortunately, she said, the missing memory card contains more than 400 customized pages that contain personal information, such as family, phone numbers and other contacts.
Harris said she had hoped that the device was taken by accident but worried that it was taken on purpose.
"That was our worst fear," she said. "As far as we knew, it was gone for good."
She said the DynaVox is of no use to anyone except Newby.
She was afraid that a thief had quickly realized that it had no personal use and had "literally thrown it in the trash."
Principal Lynn Pool theorized that the specialized touch-screen machine was taken because it looks like a thick tablet computer.
"The DynaVox is not a device that others would want," she said. "But it is definitely a need for this student."
School officials would not release details of its recovery, other than to say they were glad it was returned.
'Just like an angel'
Harris said she knew from the moment her son was born that something was wrong. The umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck, and he was delivered by cesarean. He had stopped breathing and his heart stopped, and Harris believes that during the five or six minutes it took to resuscitate him, severe damage was done.
His maladies include cerebral palsy and a genetic disorder, Harris said.
But, she said, her son has constantly surprised his doctors, teachers and caregivers.
"Every day, he does or says something amazing," she said. "Most people don't understand where he's come from to appreciate where he is at and the path that he has traveled to get there."
He loves going to school and participating in Special Olympics; his specialties include track and field, bowling and equestrian.
"Lance is just like an angel," said his stepfather, Ted Harris.
An outpouring of support
The device costs more than $8,000, a DynaVox representative said.
"The responses from the community from people who want to help Lance have been overwhelming," Harris said.
Strangers from Plano, Michigan and Oklahoma offered to help.
This week, an anonymous donor in Azle gave a newer DynaVox model to the school district to give to Newby. Arrangements were being made Wednesday to get it to him.
"It's a blessing," Harris said. "People who we don't know are trying to help."
If Newby gets a newer device, Harris said, the family plans "to pass Lance's old one on to a student who has no means."
A Georgia woman offered an older model to Newby. But when she learned about the donation of the newer model, she said she was going to donate the device to a local facility.
"It's made a great awareness," Harris said.
Marty Sabota, 817-390-7367