Starring…my favorite kids with special needs

Video shoot, June 2012

Video shoot, June 2012

This video will make your Monday!

Two summers ago, we were approached by some folks in Hollywood who were interested in making a feature film based on JSAP. The idea is still floating around out there, somewhere in that strange land called LA. Who knows…it could still happen someday. Even if it never materializes, those filmmakers left us with something priceless – a beautiful video intended to give a glimpse into the personalities of some of our students and to show how endearing, funny and fabulous they are. So, let’s go back two years, when Darby was still here, when Connor was a little boy, when Melissa had long hair and when it was Katie’s 18th birthday….

 

Not So “Typical” Teens

One of the first things I learned back in 2008 when I first became involved with people who have special needs was that we should refer to people with disabilities as people first – like people with special needs, not special needs people – and that those of us who don’t have disabilities should be referred to as “typical.” After spending seven  years working with our teenage volunteers, I can tell you that there’s nothing typical about any of them.

When I first got the idea to try teaching dance to kids with special needs, I knew that the normal teacher/pupil ratio wouldn’t work. I didn’t want to limit my program to one type of disability; I wanted any child who wanted to participate in the arts to join. But that meant being prepared for children with a wide variety of challenges – verbal, physical, social – and in the beginning, we only had two teachers…Hayley Henderson and me. Even though I limited class size to 10 students, I knew that with an age range of 3-12 and with disabilities like Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, mitochondrial disease, spina bifida and others, we were gonna need some help.

Hayley turned to the kids in the Huntsville High School Show Choir, led by her mother and Choral Department Director Sherry Smith, for help. She rounded up 9 kids – and I threw in Austin to get us up to an even 10 – and we had our first crop of typical students to serve as program volunteers. I had no idea back then that relationships between students, volunteers and the families of both would form outside the walls of Merrimack Hall. Once they’ve graduated, our volunteers return to visit us on school breaks, take their former students out for lunch and visit them each time they’re home from college. Our program is proof that both sides benefit when we are all integrated together.

I’m amazed…and grateful…when, year after year, teenagers come to us from all over North Alabama. These typical teens are already exceptional – all of them are high-achieving, budding philanthropists with too many talents to list – and the friendships they share with our students are, well, they’re pretty special.

We honored 9 seniors at our Spring Recital – 5 typical kids and 4 kids with special needs. In the first half of this short video, the volunteers say, in their own words, what our students have meant to them; the second half is me, talking about our students. For anyone who wonders how “typical” kids could benefit from having kids with special needs in their classrooms, and in their lives, this video says it all.

Luckily, we will still have our Project UP seniors with us next year but our volunteers will be off to college – every one of them having received prestigious scholarships. Halle Ragan, Emily Dean, Peyton Davis, John Chilton and Bailey Kinnard, we will miss you so much! These typical teens, and the 50 who have already graduated, took our first little dance class and have turned it into something I never could have imagined. Anytime I try to thank any of them for their service, they tell me that they’re the ones who should be thanking us…for lessons learned, for joy received and for the privilege of friendship with kids who have special needs.

 

 

 

My Heart is Heavy

Me with our first group of students, including Darby, in 2008.

Me with our first group of students, including Darby, in 2008.

As we come to the end of the 6th program year of the Johnny Stallings Arts Program, I have been reflecting on all that we’ve accomplished in the past 12 months. We have experienced some incredible highs:

  • Project UP was selected to perform at the National Dance Day Gala in Los Angeles.
  • They were victorious at regional dance competitions in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
  • We have doubled the number of people we are serving.
  • We completed the renovation of part of our building to house our new day habilitation program for adults.
  • We have re-vamped and improved our monthly social events for adults with special needs.

Personally, there have also been some tremendous high points this year:

  • I launched this new blog and website and have attracted over 25,000 readers in less than 90 days.
  • I completed 22 hours towards an Executive MBA in Social Enterprise from Columbia University and received a Certificate in Business Excellence.
  • I graduated from Leadership Huntsville Class 26.
  • I was honored by the Women’s Economic Development Council for my contributions to the community.
  • My son celebrated one year of sobriety.
  • My daughter moved back home after two years in South Carolina.
  • And Alan and I celebrated 28 years of marriage.

And yet, I feel so low today because no matter how high the achievements have been, the losses this year have been staggering. We lost our beloved Darby Jones on October 28, after her courageous battle with leukemia. One of our students underwent a kidney transplant at the Mayo Clinic and is still recovering from the surgery. Another student is slowly recovering from a series of strokes and grueling rounds of chemo in her battle with leukemia. We lost an adult in the day program to colon cancer, a beautiful man who we immediately fell in love with and lost way too soon. A three-year-old girl has spent the last few months in outpatient treatment for various health problems and another young child is in a body cast, recovering from hip surgery. Just this morning, we learned that a member of Project UP, who should be receiving his trophy and being recognized as a high school senior at our recital on Saturday, will instead be recovering from surgery that is scheduled for Friday to determine if he has cancer or not.

And last Thursday morning, we lost a precious 9-year-old girl, an unexpected and heartbreaking blow to our program. When I started this program, it didn’t occur to me that the volunteers I recruited might have to face loss and pain nor did I realize that along with watching our students achieve great personal milestones, I might also have to watch them die.

Project UP with Melissa, Claire and Hayley in Los Angeles this summer.

Project UP with Melissa, Claire and Hayley in Los Angeles this summer.

Melissa, our Program and Operations Director, is expecting her first child any day now … Merrimack Hall’s first staff baby. While we were at the visitation on Sunday evening, Melissa reminded me that she began her pregnancy at Darby’s funeral and is ending it with the loss of another student … and that was before we learned the news of our other student possibly having cancer.

What a contrast … a new life beginning while others have ended.

I’m reminded of something I heard in my Sunday School class a few years ago. Dr. Donn Wheeler, an esteemed obstetrician, was leading our class in a discussion about the virgin birth. Dr. Wheeler said something like this: I’ve delivered thousands of babies over the course of my career. I can tell you the mechanics of how an egg and a sperm come together to form life and I can explain every step from conception to delivery. I know the science and the medicine like the back of my hand.

And yet, at each birth I attend, I’m reminded of the miracle of life and even though I can tell you the ins and outs of how that life came to be, it’s no less a miracle every time.

As I’ve become involved with people who have special needs, I’ve thought of Dr. Wheeler’s words many times … about the intricate marvel that is human life and about how easily things can go off course.

I’ve thought about how lucky I am that my pregnancies were uneventful, that my children were not injured during birth, that all of their chromosomes lined up in their proper order, that every molecule in every cell came together in just the right way … at just the right moment … to produce a healthy baby.

I’ve thought of how tenuous life is, how easily things can go awry, how fine the line is between complete health and something going terribly wrong.

On Thursday, Melissa and I had to tell the volunteers and parents that one of their classmates had passed away and the reaction from the teenagers who volunteer in the class was painful to see. I feel responsible for their pain because I’m the one who started this program, encouraged teenagers to get involved with us and put them in the position of laying their tender hearts on the line. I know in my head that being involved with JSAP is enriching the teens’ lives and that they are better people because they’ve allowed our students into their hearts but my heart is heavy when I see them grieving, questioning “why” and hurting so deeply.

On days like this, I fight the urge to say, “I can’t do this anymore.”

I said to Alan this morning:

“I wish I could do this without getting so personally involved”

He answered:

“You can’t because that’s why the program works … because everyone is a family now.”

I know he’s right and I remain committed to the work we are doing but sometimes, it just sucks, plain and simple.

Our students at the 2010 Dream Big! spring recital.

Our students at the 2010 Dream Big! spring recital.

Winston Churchill said, “In each person’s life, there comes a moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment should find them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”

I got that tap on the shoulder in November 2008, when I was first inspired to start a dance class for children with special needs. That tap on the shoulder led me to do something I never could have imagined, it’s introduced me to people I never would have met and it started a chain reaction that created an entire community of lives that never would have intersected if it hadn’t been for that one little dance class.

Until this year, I thought my tap on the shoulder was only going to be a source of happiness but the truth is that happiness and sorrow have to come as a pair…without one, you would never appreciate the other.

I wouldn’t trade knowing Darby or Anthony or Genavieve for anything in the world and I would bring them back if I could, but I can’t. If I could, I would give my own health to prevent other students from suffering, but I can’t. If I could, I would guarantee every teenager who decides to volunteer with us that nothing bad will ever happen to any child they meet and love through our program, but I can’t.

All I can do is remind myself every day that I got tapped on the shoulder for a reason and that tap on the shoulder created a family, so at least all of our hearts share the same pain. Winston Churchill never said that answering that tap on the shoulder would be easy or that it wouldn’t involve getting hurt but he did say that if we answer our tap, it will be worth it.

Missing Darby

Darby in 2010

Darby in 2010

It’s been 95 days since Darby passed away. In some ways, it feels much longer than that and in other ways it seems like yesterday. I still expect to see her every Tuesday, smiling as she sings and dances with her friends. Every Monday in our creative writing class, I wonder what Darby would add to our story, remembering how much she loved to write and tell stories. Her name is still listed on our class rosters, her pictures are everywhere at Merrimack Hall and we have her name emblazoned on the wall in the dance studio…The Darby Jones Dance Studio. She is with us every day and yet she is gone…a 14-year-old girl whose life hadn’t even started…and she’s gone.

When we were preparing for her funeral, her mother, Valerie, wanted us to find a way to display Darby’s “Beads of Courage,” an impressive collection of beaded necklaces that the folks at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham helped her make. Each bead on the multiple necklaces Darby made represent a procedure…a spinal tap, a blood transfusion, a surgery, a chemo treatment. Literally hundreds of beads that stand for the hundreds of intrusive medical interventions she had to endure are strung together in at least 10 individual necklaces, each one long enough to wrap around Darby’s neck several times and still hang to her waist. She was proud of her Beads of Courage and loved explaining what each of the beads stood for, especially the beads with a picture of a face on them that have wiry curls sticking up…these beads were for the times Darby lost her hair during chemo. We covered heavy foam board with blue velvet fabric and used floral pins with pearls on the tops of them to hold the necklaces in place. At Darby’s visitation the night before her funeral, they were displayed beside her coffin on brass easels, uplit with small lights we brought from the theatre. After the visitation, we carefully loaded them into my car so that we could set them up at the funeral service.

As Sanders and I were preparing to leave my house for the funeral, we had to put a few more things into the back of my car and in the process, I broke one of the strands of beads. Beads rolled everywhere…all across the floor of my garage and into every nook and cranny of my car. We frantically chased them down, stuffing them into our pockets as we found them. We waited until we arrived at the church to assess the damage and were horrified to realize that we had lost one of the beads. We searched my car high and low but couldn’t find it anywhere.

While I worked with the florist to set up the sanctuary, Sanders drove to three different craft stores before she finally found the same string used for the necklaces so she could re-string them. Back at the church, I hid Sanders behind the large video screen we brought in and told her to restring that necklace as fast as she could before anyone else could realize I had broken it. I knew I would eventually tell Valerie that I had broken the necklace and lost a bead but I didn’t want her to know on the day of the funeral.

Sanders got the necklace restrung, working off of a photo we had taken at the visitation to get the order correct and no one was the wiser that day. A few days after the funeral, I was loading groceries in the back of my car and found the missing bead…in a place I had looked twenty times before. There it was, a simple red acrylic bead that stood for a blood transfusion. How could I have overlooked it when we tore my car apart trying to find it?

The day I found it, I had been feeling down and sad, replaying the funeral in my head. While the service was beautiful and comforting, it was as heartbreaking as you could imagine…there is something very wrong about a funeral for a child. I kept choking up that morning, remembering the tears that streamed down Anna C.’s face as Darby’s parents walked in the church behind the coffin. And then there it was – a little red bead – and I could feel Darby with me. I carry that bead in the change compartment of my wallet where I see it every day.

Darby and her mother Valerie at her final performance with Project UP, at the hospital.

Darby and her mother Valerie at her final performance with Project UP, at the hospital.

I will never understand why Darby had to leave us so soon. I believe that everything happens for a reason but for the life of me, I can’t imagine what reason there is for ending the life of a child. I’ve caught myself getting mad at God when I see a story in the news about some horrible criminal, thinking, “If God had to take someone on October 28, 2013, why couldn’t He have taken that wretched person instead of Darby,” as if God uses some sort of quota system to determine how many people should die each day. I’m sure it doesn’t work like that but it rankles me to think of all the people on this earth who are here doing evil things while Darby’s chance at a long life is gone.

When I told her about breaking the necklace, Valerie laughed at the image of Sanders and me scrambling all over my garage and car, hiding behind video screens to surreptitiously fixing the broken strand. I told her that I’d found the missing bead and offered it back to her but she wanted me to keep it. I’m grateful for that, I find comfort in knowing that bead is with me all the time. The bead used to represent a procedure that Darby endured but now, it represents her…her courage, her optimism, her beauty. Knowing Darby was one of the greatest blessings of my life and I wasn’t ready to lose her…neither were the hundreds of other people who loved her. I’m trying to live like she did – in the moment, with joy, with complete abandon – but I could have used a few more years of her influence to get it right.

Living the Rich Life

Darby in 2012

Darby in 2012

Back in 2006, Alan and I were living the good life. Troubles with our son, Austin, notwithstanding, we, “Had it made,” so to speak. Alan had achieved a level of financial success that afforded us the luxury of enjoying the finer things…great vacations, a lovely home, nice clothes and cars…and also afforded us the luxury of knowing that we could send our kids to college, take care of ourselves into retirement and in general could live without the pressure that worry over money can create. There was no reason why we couldn’t have spent the last seven years continuing to live that rich life.

But doing that wasn’t enough for Alan.

He wasn’t satisfied with, “Making a bunch of money and spending the rest of my life buying things.” When he said that to me, I told him I was fine with spending the rest of my life buying things…but I didn’t really mean it. Before 2007, when Merrimack opened and especially until 2008, when I started The Johnny Stallings Arts Program, life was good, but it was hollow. There are only so many pairs of Monolo Blaniks a girl needs, only so many times you can jet off to some fabulous destination before you realize that those things, while awfully nice, do not a happy life make.

Instead of enjoying lunches with friends, going on shopping excursions and taking on the occasional volunteer chairmanship, I have worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life – and Alan has too – for no pay. We’ve gotten lots of glory for our good works, won lots of awards, been patted on the back a lot, but we’ve sacrificed a lot these seven years – we’ve each donated 60 or more hours a week, we’ve donated millions of dollars, we’ve travelled a lot on behalf of Merrimack but haven’t had a proper vacation since 2010.

People have asked us why we’ve chosen to spend our money and our time doing this, leveraging what our financial advisors would tell you is a disproportionate amount of our resources to create and sustain Merrimack Hall. We always answer that we’ve chosen to do this because we can and because it’s what we think we are supposed to do in order to be good stewards of the good fortune that’s come our way.

As I’ve grown to know and love so many people with special needs and their families, I’ve certainly felt gratified for the work we are doing. I’ve known that my life has been enriched ten-fold by The Johnny Stallings Arts Program. But I didn’t realize the true extent of that enrichment until Saturday afternoon, sitting at Epworth Methodist Church at the memorial service for Darby Jones.

Darby and her mother Valerie at her final performance with Project UP, at the hospital.

Darby and her mother Valerie at her final performance with Project UP, at the hospital.

Darby’s mother, Valerie, wanted ten of Darby’s closest friends to perform a dance at the service. We agreed on the song “Edelweiss,” as it was one of Darby’s favorites and something she and her beloved grandmother sang together often. All of last week, we had a grief counselor at Merrimack Hall every afternoon, talking with our students and their families as they worked through their sorrow. While the mommas cried buckets of tears last week, none of the students did. At the service, Melissa, Claire, Hayley, Sanders and I sat with the girls in the choir loft, partially hidden from the congregation by a large video screen. When the first chords of the organists prelude began, Anna C. lowered her head, as tears began streaming down her cheeks. Her best friend, Anna G. put her arm around Anna C., hugging her gently and stroking her hair. Anna G. kept repeating, “It’s okay. We still have each other.” As Anna C.’s quiet tears turned to sobs, Anna G. began to cry herself. But even as tears streamed down her own face, Anna G. remained as calm as she could, determined to comfort her friend. Many times during the service, we adults had to play “musical chairs” so that we could position ourselves near those who needed a shoulder to lean on and at one time or another in the service, each of the girls cried…gut wrenching sobs as they accepted the finality of the loss of their friend.

At that moment, I realized that those ten girls – and all the kids and adults in JSAP – have become family to me and that we’ve become family to them. How hard it must have been for those ten mommas to leave their children with us at the service, how much their hearts must have ached to see their children grieving and how much they trusted us to take care of their daughters during such an emotional event. Family is who we trust our most tender emotions with, family is who we turn to when our hearts are broken. The knowledge that those mommas trusted their babies with us, that we were all grieving a shared loss and that, as Anna G. said, “We still have each other,” brought a new revelation to me, a new understanding of the reason why Alan and I are working so hard to sustain Merrimack Hall.

Darby's friends before their performance at her memorial service

Darby’s friends before their performance at her memorial service

The reason is that an extended family has been created. People who would never have met before have been brought together in bonds of friendship and lives are being shared through JSAP.  Because Alan wasn’t satisfied with spending the rest of his life buying things, we have been allowed to be the facilitators of an amazing group of people, numbering in the hundreds now, who share a love of the arts and a love for people with special needs. This group of people is more valuable than anything money could ever buy. Prior to the advent of JSAP in 2008, I had limited contact with people with special needs. Today, I know hundreds of people and their families who have brought meaning and joy to my life. In this month of gratitude, I am overwhelmed with gratitude to Alan for having such a giving heart, to God for placing us in this position in the first place and to all the people I’ve come to know and love over the past seven years.

As we said good bye to Darby on Saturday, I silently expressed my gratitude to her. Darby and Valerie are responsible for about half of all of our participants – so wide was their circle of friends that each time we’ve added a new program, Darby and Valerie were our best recruiters. I’m grateful to Darby for bringing so many new people into my life, for being one of our original students – true pioneers they each are – and for being such a source of inspiration to me as our programs developed. I told Darby that I will never forget her, that she will live on in my heart and in every thing we do at Merrimack Hall. I thanked her for sharing her beautiful life and her many talents with me. Mostly, I thanked Darby for helping me see what these past seven years have meant to my personal life. As we all comforted each other and grieved together, I saw with clarity that my life today is more rich than it ever would have been before.

The life of one little girl brought hundreds of people together in celebration on Saturday, but no one was celebrating more than me…I was celebrating the knowledge that because of Darby and JSAP, Alan and I have more riches than money could every bring. Because of Darby, I understand with greater insight why we must continue to work, raise money and create new programs. As her loss continues to bring our JSAP family closer together, we will work even harder in her memory. We will celebrate her life in everything we do. And I will be forever grateful to her for showing me that I’m the richest woman who ever lived.

 

Darby’s Passing

Yesterday at 1:30 p.m., heaven gained a new angel.

Darby at her first recital

Darby at her first recital

I’m devastated by the loss of precious Darby Jones, one of the “Original Posse” in The Johnny Stallings Arts Program. I thought I had wrapped my head around the thought of losing her but of course, when it really happened I wasn’t prepared at all. Today, when I pulled into the parking lot of Merrimack Hall, I immediately broke down…knowing that I will never again see Darby dance on our stage hit me like a brick wall. I thought of all the times I’ve seen her pull into the parking lot with her mom, beaming from ear to ear because she was so excited to get to dance class or to perform in a show. I remembered back to our very first class on October 8, 2008. Darby was bald and in the midst of a round of treatment for her third bout with leukemia. Weak and pale, she was determined to get through those first few months of class, no matter how exhausted or sick she was.

Merrimack Hall became one of her favorite places…the place where she lived out her dreams of being a star. We have presented many luminous performers on the stage at Merrimack Hall – people who have won Emmys, Tonys and Oscars. But none of them could hold a candle to seeing Darby perform on stage. I will miss her so much.

Most of my concern today has been for her teammates. There hasn’t been a day that has gone by since Darby relapsed last May that someone from the Project UP gang hasn’t talked about her. Just yesterday, one of the kids said, “Hey, you know what? My friend Darby isn’t going to die or anything. She’s just in the hospital for a long time.” I have agonized over how the kids would deal with the loss of their friend and teammate, knowing that many of our students might not have a frame of reference for the finality of death. I shouldn’t have worried.

The "Original Posse" - Our first ten students in 2009

The “Original Posse” – Our first nine students in 2009

The Project UP kids told me things today like, “Did you know Darby is in heaven now? I bet she’s dancing up there.” Or, “Darby has died but she will always be in our hearts, won’t she?” Or the best one, “Could you be quiet for a minute? I’m trying to talk to Darby right now.” One girl said, “I’m going to miss her a lot but she’ll be here every time we dance,” as she pointed to her own  heart. Once again, I underestimated our students and their capacity to grasp what’s really important in life.

Darby at Camp Merrimack

Darby at Camp Merrimack

And so we will grieve the loss of a beautiful child, a child who taught us so much. The lessons I learned from Darby were to accept everyone just the way they are; to start and end every day with a smile; to enjoy every single thing you do every single day; to say I love you to the ones you love…a million times a day. Darby showed me what courage looks like, not just as she battled cancer but every time she came to dance class. Darby showed me what joy looks like, every time she smiled. When I looked at Darby, it was like getting a little glimpse of what God must look like. I ache for her parents as they face the staggering loss of their only child. I will remind myself that Darby was a gift in my life and that even though five years wasn’t enough, I was blessed to know her for as long as I did. And every time our students take the stage, I know Darby will be with me, right here in my heart.

The Opposite of Bullying

Best friends Abbey & Darby

Best friends Abbey & Darby

Darby is 13-years old and has lived through more challenges in her short life than most of us will ever encounter. Born with Down syndrome, Darby had open-heart surgery as an infant and has survived not one, not two, but three bouts with leukemia. When I first met Darby in October 2008, she was fragile, pale and bald, suffering through the worst of a year-long round of chemo in her two-year treatment protocol. Sometimes, she had to come to dance class wearing a surgical mask, as her immune system was so compromised that she was susceptible to any bug or virus in the air. Many times, she would have to sit down during class, as she tired easily. Her mom, Valerie, said that most times that year, she would barely be buckled into the car after class before she was asleep, exhausted from the exertion of being in a dance class. But no matter how bad she felt, how many times she had thrown up that day, how awful her pain was, Darby insisted each week that Valerie bring her to Merrimack Hall for her Dance Your Dreams! class. Valerie said that being at Merrimack Hall was the only bright spot for Darby during that very dark year.

Darby is what the experts would call high functioning, but what I would call incredible. She performs at grade level academically, is involved in every extracurricular activity her school will allow her to join and is even a drummer in the marching band. She has taken piano lessons, choral lessons, theatre classes, is a member of her school’s thespian club and loves to go to Camp Smile-A-Mile, for children with cancer, each summer. But her favorite activity out of them all is coming to Merrimack Hall because she loves to sing and dance. She advanced up to Project UP last year and loves all the additional performance opportunities she has as a member of our upper level program.

Despite her accomplishments, Darby could be a prime target for bullying. She is naive and trusting, a bit behind the curve socially (she hasn’t noticed boys yet, much to her father’s relief and still likes to play with dolls and with children younger than she is), and she has Down syndrome. While there are many places where she is accepted for who she is, like her church and Merrimack Hall, being in a large public school has put her in the same arena with kids who might not be so kind. We all know the hateful words she may be exposed to someday, those hurtful labels that she might be given, those names she might be called. We all know there may come a time when Darby realizes that she is “different” from her typical peers, when she isn’t included in someone’s birthday party or when she isn’t invited to the prom. If and when that day comes, I know Darby will be able to handle it with the same sort of dignity and courage that she has handled having cancer. I know this because for now, instead of bullying her, her peers have singled her out for recognition and have celebrated her “differentness” in a remarkable way.

Darby in 2010

Darby in 2010

You see, Darby has been elected to represent her class in the Homecoming Court tomorrow night! That time-honored tradition of selecting the most popular girls in the school as representatives at the biggest football game of the season has been adjusted slightly by the kids in Darby’s grade. Tomorrow night, Darby’s dad will be proudly strutting down the football field, with his daughter on his arm, a mum pinned on her collar. Tomorrow night, Darby’s grade will be represented not by the smartest girl in the class, or the prettiest girl in the class. Tomorrow night, Darby’s grade will be represented by the bravest, kindest and most deserving girl in her grade. And to think that average 13-year-olds had the wisdom and compassion to select Darby to represent them gives me hope that there are enough young kids out there who are willing to stand up for others, who are willing to advocate for those who might not be able to advocate for themselves. There are kids out there who see Darby for who she is, not for what she’s diagnosed with. And now I don’t know who’s more courageous – Darby or her classmates.

When the day comes for Darby when someone bullies her, puts her down, leaves her out, mocks or ridicules her, I know that she will be able to remember what she feels tomorrow night, that she will remember that when she was 13, the kids in her grade found her to be the most deserving and the coolest girl in their class. She will be able to draw strength and courage from this honor for years to come and will always know that for once in her life, she was recognized for being “special” for something other than having Down syndrome. She will always be classified as having special needs, but tomorrow night, she will just be special. I know Darby, and I know the message that she is special will resonate with her for years to come and will make a huge difference in her self-esteem and in how she thinks of herself as she advances into high school.

We’ve been hearing so much about bullying during National Anti-Bullying Month, so many ugly stories of people of all ages who are humiliated and hurt because of their appearance, sexual orientation, religious convictions, political affiliations, economic status and more. Today, I wanted to share this story of a group of “typical” kids lifting up a “special” kid, honoring her and paying tribute to her because they like her and admire her. I’d love to hear more stories like this one from you – please post your comment on this blog so that we can push back against bullies by sharing examples of anti-bullies!

I will close with a video shot this summer, where Darby is explaining her Beads of Courage with Carolyn (age 18, autism) and Leah, a staff member. You will be able to see for yourself what an unbelievable girl Darby is. And Carolyn, our new staff member at Merrimack Hall, has her own accomplishments to brag about – she will be representing the United States as an ice skater at the Special Olympics in Seoul, Korea, in February 2013!