photo of young lady with glasses smiling

Meet Maria: The Sunshine Storyteller

Maria also goes by the beloved name, “Miss Sunshine.” She is the firstborn of Beth and Woody Tatman of Jackson, TN. Despite every obstacle she’s faced in her life, she shines brighter than any other person around her. 

Maria was due in a week when her mother, Beth, went in for a routine exam. While the nurse was reviewing her ultrasound, she left to grab a doctor to determine if Maria was breach. To Beth’s surprise, the doctors instead discovered Maria had too much fluid on her brain, a condition called Hydrocephalus. Immediately, Beth began making plans to go to Memphis for surgery. Beth called her husband, Woody, to relay the news and they started off in a new and unknown territory. There was no time to truly process that their normal pregnancy and beautiful baby was suffering from a traumatic brain injury. Maria was born on a Monday and had a shunt surgery scheduled for that following Friday. 

Couple holding baby in hospital
Parents of Maria, Beth and Woody Tatman, holding Maria as a baby.

When describing that moment of meeting Maria, her father portrayed, “She was born by c-section and I got to see the process. She came out and she didn’t look crazy different.” Almost immediately, Beth and Woody were put in contact with the Hydrocephalus Association to help them navigate through this new territory. 

In simpler terms, Hydrocephalus means too much fluid on the brain. Maria has a ventriculoperitoneal (VP) shunt that drains the fluid and relieves the pressure on her brain. She is also legally blind and has Cerebral Palsy that affects her left arm and leg. Over the past 27 years, she has had six brain surgeries to either repair or replace the shunt. Because of the Hydrocephalus, she has also had difficultly learning. 

When Maria was 5 years old, Beth discovered The STAR Center from founder, Margaret Doumitt. Margarett and Beth have a unique connection in wanting to move heaven and earth for their children. Since then Maria has participated in a multitude of services from The STAR Center; assistive technology (AT), music therapy & art therapy, learning lab, orientation & mobility (O&M) training, and the job tracks program. Maria made a huge impact on the STAR team and her love for storytelling and music therapy began to shine brightly. So much that The STAR Center hired her on as the official storyteller.

Maria has the uncanny ability to memorize and not forget one detail of any story. Maria began visiting nursing homes, classrooms, and even speaking to crowds surprising everyone with her incredible skills. Some of Maria’s favorite stories are from Dr. Suess and Aesop’s fables. Maria doesn’t just recite the words but embellishes with her “sunshine” personality. 

Maria’s nickname came from dear friends of hers, the late Poole Sisters. They recognized her ability to light up a room and thought there is no better of a word to fit this talented young lady than Miss Sunshine. Maria has not only welcomed the nickname but has embraced it on every level from incorporating it into her daily life and learning all the songs with the word sunshine. 

“Because of the support of many great teachers, the STAR Center, and my family I was able to graduate with a regular education diploma. Despite my learning and physical disabilities, I’d always dreamed of going to college, living on my own with a roommate, and having a job where I would get to interact with other people.” Maria said, “But attending a regular university wasn’t a realistic option for me.”

Little did the Tatman family know a program that focused on inclusive post-secondary education was in the works at Union University. As much as Maria loves her rocking chair, she could escape a life with what felt like no purpose and begin a new journey. 

In January of 2015, Maria was working at The STAR Center and ran into Jennifer Graves, Executive Director of the Union EDGE Program, in the hallways of STAR. Jennifer was brand new on the job and was on the way to meet the president of The STAR Center, Dave Bratcher. She stopped to meet a lively young lady that caught her attention who handed her a business card. It read, “Maria Sunshine Tatman. The Storyteller” Jennifer had never met any student that so boldly would hand her a business card. “It was the most amazing thing,” Jennifer said, “for Maria to tell her ‘I am Maria Tatman and I am coming to the Union EDGE Program.'” The Union EDGE program focuses on employment training, daily living skills, godly and educational enrichment. 

Maria learned how to cook, how to do laundry, how to keep her room clean and so many more things that contribute to a better quality of life. She not only is living an independent life but is also advocating for herself. Maria enjoys sharing her story and will not leave any detail out of what she’s endured.

Two young girls holding college diploma
Maria at graduation

She is now a recent graduate of the Union EDGE program, lives in her own apartment, and works at the Old Country Store 20 hours a week as the official greeter. Maria doesn’t just work, she shines every time she is working. “I get to greet and welcome the guests and tell them all about the Old Country Store. On Thursdays, my favorite day of the week, I sing and play the washboard and spoons with the Plectoral Society Blue Grass Band.” she grinned. Maria is also a talented performer. She moves right along with the band members as she sings and plays old country songs, songs about sunshine, and her favorite song by Josh Turner – “Long Black Train.” Her infectious smile and personality elevate the entire room. 

Young lady in parlor playing spoons with blue grass band
Maria performing at Old Country Store

Her favorite thing about working at The Old Country Store is greeting new people, seeing new faces, and tapping her feet to the music every time. Maria’s known for her jokes and phrases among her friends and family. When asked how she would describe the food, she replied, “This food is so good it’ll make your tongue slap the roof of your mouth! Ayyyyeeee (also known as the Cajun yell).” Her coworker Kaitlyn says Maria lights up the room and we love everything she brings to the Old Country Store. 

It hasn’t been easy for Tatman’s. Because of the condition, Maria’s health could take a life-threatening turn at any minute because of a malfunction of the shunt in her brain. At the age of three, Maria went through three surgeries in one week. What most would think would be a terrifying sitting in the waiting room, was a relief for her parents. “The worst part wouldn’t be the surgery, it would be everything prior to that. The pain. The vomiting. The small-time frame of getting emergency help, and knowing we couldn’t do anything to help except getting her to medical professionals.” However, this did not stop Beth and Woody from ensuring Maria and her younger sister, Leah, lived life to the fullest.

As medical professionals themselves, Beth and Woody taught Maria to understand her condition, navigate through life one-handed, advocate for herself and so much more that helped establish her confidence. 

Maria continues her orientation and mobility training at The STAR Center, lives with a roommate through the ECF CHOICES program, works for the Old Country store, and is thankful she’s been able to reach her goals in life. Her parents have a sense of peace knowing she’s happy and seeing her be okay. Maria is often asked how she is doing and she brightly replies, “I’m living the dream!” 

Maria has crushed every obstacle from education to employment to life with the help of those that believed in her. “By everyone concentrating on my strengths instead of my disabilities, my dreams are coming true. I look forward to going to work every week to spread sunshine to those around me.”

In the words of Maria “Sunshine” Tatman, “You all have a bodacious evening!”

To watch Maria’s story, click here.

About the Author : Cassidy Sheppard

NOTE: This person is a past employee or intern of the STAR Center. Their name and authorship is preserved for posterity.

1 Comment
  1. Judy Westover February 27, 2020 at 6:47 pm - Reply

    She’s delightful! I met her at the Old Country store. My husband enjoys picking bluegrass on Thursday nights. She is usually in the ice cream parlor playing and singing along. Warms my heart. God has truly blessed her and blessing more lives daily. Thank you Maria! Keep up the great service and talents.
    God bless you!
    Mrs Judy Westover ( Grover)

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