Monday, April 10, 2017

No. Thank you!

It sounds counterintuitive to say thank you for making my wife cry.  So let me explain it in a much longer way.

Michelle was inspired to start the “Random Acts of Kindness” exercise every March 21 after she read about a similar idea practiced by a family who lost a loved one to leukemia.  The timing was just before World Down Syndrome Day, so she just took the ball and ran with it on a whim.  

After witnessing this annual event the last few years, two overarching themes seem to be going on here.  The first theme is really just a simple exercise in altruism.  The second theme, obviously, is spreading awareness for those impacted by Down Syndrome.  

When Michelle first spearheaded her movement within our immediate family of five, the adults and kids alike were all so struck by how fun it was to see the reaction of strangers or friends on the receiving end of a kind gesture.  It just felt so good to give for the sake of giving - whether it be homemade cookies or buying a cup of coffee.  We are not religious people but this was an excellent example for our kids to witness and learn from, which probably speaks to any spiritual affiliation.  

The experiment caught on quickly among our own relatives and close friends.  Everyone was more than eager to get in on the act.  A lifelong friend of Michelle’s graciously contributed her artistic talents to create the 3/21 cards featuring our little Gus man - and has continued to do so every year since.  As my family became more entrenched within our own community over the years, our neighbors and friends joined in on the fun too.  Eventually, families connected to our kids’ schools got involved.  Ridiculously generous and creative gestures came out of the woodwork - some shared on the Facebook page or word of mouth, and some performed quietly and anonymously.  

Emboldened by the enthusiasm showed by others, Michelle solicited and received overwhelming support from many many business in and around our town.  Examples include but are not limited to Staples, Village Toy Store, Stone Forge, Hilliards, Ultimate Pizza, Back Bay Bagel, White’s Bakery, and Mario’s Trattoria donating gift cards, merchandise, or other generous gifts with very little convincing needed.  

The momentum just seems every year to spread further and further as our network spreads even well beyond outside our familiar circle to other peoples’ own friends and families.  We are always pleasantly surprised to learn of random acts by total strangers using our Gus cards - especially in places far outside the 02356 zip code or 508 area code!  

I am not exaggerating when I say that a kind of tipping point occurred in this event once our local educators became involved.  Honestly, is it any surprise that elementary school teachers and paraprofessionals for kids with or without special needs turn out to be the greatest advocates and facilitators of the Random Acts of Kindness?  Without question, our family was touched most profoundly by the overwhelming enthusiasm demonstrated throughout the schools of our town and especially Gus’ school, Parkview.  

To be honest, the attention almost embarrassed me at times.  We are friends with lots of families who have a loved one with DS.  I didn’t want any of them to think we were claiming some kind of exclusive right to World DS Day.  At the same time, I know all of us celebrate 3/21 in different ways.  Some are low key.  Others go kind of crazy (ahem, my wife) and hope that a local news channel or reality TV star will help spread the word next year.  

This brings me to the most important - and sobering - theme of spreading awareness.  As unbearably painful as it is to fathom, I know that someday, somewhere, somehow - Gus will be taunted or ignored by another kid.  Probably many times.  He will not be invited to a birthday party.  An adult will assume based on his appearance that Gus is less competent than he truly is.  Someday, I will have to explain what the word “retard” means.  My heart is in my throat and tears are welling in my eyes as I type these words.

Unfortunately, the offender will have absolutely no idea how hard Gus and his community of family, friends, educators, and therapists work every single day on the most banal activities that we take for granted.  Pronouncing words clearly.  Writing his name.  Ditching pull-ups forever.  Just engaging another kid his age in a prolonged conversation.  These are all milestones we are pursuing at the moment.  And we are going to get there eventually.  

Fortunately, we will have the strength to encounter any rotten apple moments because we know people like you and your children are all out there who can step in if we aren’t there to protect our son.  The parents who teach their kids to embrace differences without judgment.   The friends and neighbors who are unafraid to speak up for Gus to protect him when necessary.  The educators who teach and lead by example with their messages of support and inclusion.  You all are our saving grace.  

Last month, our family received many wonderful gifts both big and small from a bunch of you people.  We are so blown away by your thoughtfulness and generosity.  It was heartwarming to say the least.

Over anything else, though, what we sincerely appreciate the most is knowing that you have Gus’ back and the backs of any homie with an extra chromie.  Your support is the greatest gift.  A most sincere thank you to everyone who paid it forward - even if you made Michelle cry.