October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month. So today we are giving you this special article from one of our writers on her experience with children with Down Syndrome. Let’s celebrate these children this month, and every month!
Down Syndrome: A Story of Inclusion
When my eldest child, Eliza, was born eight and a half years ago, I was not concerned with her education. In fact, I had given it little thought. Here was my new, squishy, precious bundle of joy who simply ate, slept, cooed and cried. We didn’t need to worry about where and when she’d go to school. Not yet anyway.
Imagine my surprise when one day, while on a playdate with a little boy just a couple of weeks older than Eliza, the mom declared her son was starting school, now that he had turned one.
“What in the world? Who signs their kid up for school when they’re one?” I thought, while seriously judging my friend. (Sorry, friend!) But then she explained about a hidden jewel in Columbia: The Epworth Early Intervention Center. And I was captivated.
You see, the EEIC accepts a small number of children into their unique weekday preschool program. Typically, developing children ages one to four serve as peer models to children with a variety of disabilities.
Immediately, my husband and I knew that was an experience we wanted to give to our children. We prayed that when we sent our kids their hearts would be softened toward children who were different from them. We wanted them to learn empathy and compassion, and that it would be normal for them to have friends in wheelchairs or friends who are nonverbal or deaf.
When I was growing up, my dad was very intentional about including people with developmental disabilities in our lives. He had a sister with a developmental disability who passed away before I could meet her. He cared deeply for her, and had a soft spot for anyone he met that reminded him of her. Therefore, he made sure we knew and cared for those with a developmental disability in our circles. It’s a lesson that stuck with me.
During her time at the EEIC, my daughter would often declare two sweet friends her “best friends.” It filled my heart to see the three of them, two with Down Syndrome, playing together with ease. My daughter is an extrovert and she knows no strangers. While at the EEIC, she befriended all of the children and accepted them, no questions asked.
When my middle son Judah came along, he started attending the EEIC once he was old enough. I didn’t know what to expect with him. He’s more introverted and introspective than his big sister. He was accustomed to going to the EEIC two times a week, for his entire life, to drop off and pick up Eliza. But now it was his turn to actually attend school.
Once he started attending, he had more questions than Eliza ever had. Judah wanted to know why some kids could talk and why others couldn’t walk. For several weeks, we had many great conversations about how everyone is different and unique and that it is good for us all to be different. Over the years, I saw him naturally, and without prodding, offer help to a friend or comfort, among other things.
One day, when he was about four, Judah brought a shirt to me. He said his school buddy, Ollie, had the same shirt. He asked if I could coordinate with Ollie’s mom so they could match at school. We made it happen, and Judah couldn’t have been prouder. We took a bunch of pictures of Judah and Ollie together, and Judah asked me to print a picture off for his room. He also wanted to show and tell everyone about his good friend, Ollie.
We have spent seven years on the Epworth campus, watching the children grow and develop and move on to bigger things. My children and I have cheered, watching a sweet three-year-old learn to crawl, then walk assisted, and now sprint and walk completely free, without any help.
This little preschool has taught them so much more than basic academics. It has taught them empathy, compassion, and to love everyone.
Now that they’ve aged out of the program, I’ve seen my children go out of their way to welcome new friends, with and without disabilities, into their classrooms, park playdates and in other ways. I continue to see the fruits of those early years, where seeds of love were planted in their hearts to look out for others, especially those who are different from them. I can only hope that this is something that will stick with them for the rest of their lives.