When Kirstin was two years old, I was the chairman of Mother’s March for March of Dimes in Chandler, Arizona. The local newspaper sent a reporter to our home to interview me. She asked a lot of questions about raising a special needs child and about what I thought life would be like for us in the future. She took a nice picture of Kirstin and me, sitting on the swings in our backyard.
I had totally forgotten about the experience when, many years later, my cousin, Connie, came across her copy of the article and sent it to me. We were living in Chino Valley, Arizona, by that time, and Kirstin was in high school. Without looking at the article, I passed it to Kirstin, thinking she would enjoy reading it. Several days went by, and Kirstin never said a word about the article. Finally I asked her what she thought about it. After a few awkward moments, she muttered, “I was embarrassed.” Puzzled by her response, I took a look at the article myself. To my horror, I discovered that I had painted a pretty dreary future for our family. I had said that Kirstin would stay with us no matter what; we would never put her in an institution. Even though it might be embarrassing at times, we would keep her with us wherever we went.
The person I was picturing back then had no resemblance to the bright, charismatic charmer who is the adult Kirstin. Had I considered that someday Kirstin would be capable not only of reading the article but of fully understanding what she read, I would never have spoken those words.
Before Kirstin’s birth, I had practically no experience with special needs children. In high school, I had read Angels Unaware, written by Dale Evans, which is about her daughter, who had Down syndrome. She and Roy Rogers raised this daughter at home. It was written from the point of view of the child, who only lived for two years. It greatly moved me, but I never considered that someday I would be the parent of another angel. At the time Dale Evans had her child, parents were being encouraged to put their disabled children in institutions. In fact, in her book, she talks about the institutions being so full that children were placed in foster homes until they could be institutionalized. Doctors told parents it was in the best interest of the family. The special child would be a financial drain and take up so much of the parents’ time that their other children would suffer.
When Kirstin was diagnosed with Down syndrome, the doctor mentioned putting her in an institution as a possibility, but it was not one we ever considered. Nor was it something the doctor expected us to consider. Parents today aren’t given that option at all, because such institutions don’t exist. If families are unable to care for their special needs children, there are generous, loving families eager to adopt. At times, excellent foster families provide appropriate homes where these special children are able to thrive. Adults with special needs remain at home or in group homes as participating members of their communities. This is also the story of how that came about.
I chose to call our book This Little Light of Mine, thinking of the Sunday school song, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine … Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine.”
Kirstin does shine in this world. Because she was able to attend school with her peers, students today don’t say, as I did, their experience with special needs children is limited to reading a book. These special students are their friends and classmates. Later in life, they are their customers, employees, and coworkers, and all our lives are better for it. While they do have special needs, they also have special gifts. There is plenty they can teach us in this cynical, dog-eat-dog world. From them we can learn tolerance and patience, which are virtues most of us are weak in. Yes, Kirstin does shine in the world, and she lights it up everywhere she goes.
From the Preface of This Little Light of Mine, A Woman with Down Syndrome Shines Brightly in the World, available at amazon