Peyton Brill, Grand Haven
Down syndrome is something that many people struggle to understand. I’ve spent the last 11 years learning about it from my younger sister Chloe and there’s still so much more to learn. Over time, I have noticed how Chloe is constantly treated differently by others. I want to follow her and shield her wherever she goes, but that is just not possible. I have also become accustomed to mixed reactions from people when they learn that Chloe has Down syndrome. One of the hardest reactions to respond to is when people say “oh, I’m sorry…” as though Down syndrome is a burden. Fortunately, having Chloe in my life has taught me the importance of patience. Having patience keeps me from becoming angry at other people’s lack of knowledge and instead helps me to teach them about what Down syndrome really means.
When Chloe was about five, we went to Crazy Bounce and she was ecstatic, like a kid in a candy store. The slides were steep and slippery, but she was determined to get to the top. Years later, I still vividly remember Chloe working her way up the giant tiger slide. Ignorant teenagers began sprinting up behind us. One boy began making rude remarks about Chloe and her speed. I asked him to stop, but he in turn decided to shake the slide. As much as I wanted to go teach that kid a lesson, I just turned towards Chloe and followed her the rest of the way up. People with Down syndrome are often known for their unconditional love and so often I wonder how they manage it given the way they are so often mistreated. If the boy who made fun of Chloe had fallen, she would have been the first to run up and give him a hug, no matter how he had treated her, because that is just who she is.
Inclusion is getting better, but there is still a long way to go. Part of the reason I love camping with my family is because we can escape the small-town bubble where we spend so much of our time. Traveling with someone who has Down syndrome is thought by many to be a hassle. I will be the first to admit that sometimes the stimulation of visiting new places and trying new things can be a bit much for anyone, especially someone with special needs. When my family first got a camper, we had no clue how things were going to go, but there is no way to tell unless you try. For Chloe, our motor home has become a second home. It’s a place that she is familiar with and where she can return to if trying new things gets overwhelming. We have gone on all sorts of trips and Chloe has met many new friends. So many of the people we meet along the way are kind and open-minded. Kids from the campground will run up to our site looking for Chloe and they’ll all run off together to play. Nobody is born with the biases that are so often directed towards individuals with special needs. Seeing Chloe with all the accepting people we’ve met while traveling helps me to see that even though there are those who may try to break her down, there are a lot of people who will always support and stand up for her.
Throughout my life, I have been blessed to meet friends from my community with Down syndrome and they are honestly some of the most down-to-earth people I have ever met. At my school we have a program called POPS which stands for Power of Peer Support. The focus of the club is increasing inclusion in the school. Even simple lunches together can create great memories and show the value in small moments of acceptance, especially because people with special needs are so often left out. I have seen so many friendships form through this club and learned a lot about people who I did not know that well. Keeping a club going at school can be difficult. Many people are focused on more popular activities and are scared to try something new. Receiving messages from parents of students with special needs about how much POPS means to them and their child has pushed me to reach out and grow the club and inclusion in the school.
Recently, I ran an event called Buddy Games. During the event, individuals with special needs were paired with a buddy who stayed by their side and encouraged them as they practiced basic soccer skills like passing, dribbling, and shooting. Afterwards, a scrimmage game was held for everyone to participate in. Over 40 people participated and many of the volunteer buddies were students from Grand Haven High School. The event was totally eye-opening. Seeing inclusion on the field was just a small step towards eliminating some of the biases that people have about those with special needs. The smiles on everyone’s faces were ear-to-ear and you could feel the unconditional love. Chloe often asks to participate on school teams, but those teams tend to progress quickly and, while she is just as capable as everyone else, sometimes she needs the pace to be modified. Buddy Games was not only an opportunity that allowed Chloe and others to play on a sports team that fit their needs, but it also gave everyone who came the ability to learn about others who they perceive to be unable.
The hardest part of having a sibling with special needs is seeing the way others put her down. Learning to let Chloe work through this challenge on her own is difficult and I constantly find myself stepping in to guard her. Chloe is strong though. There are days when she completely amazes me in how she carries herself so independently and, through it all, with love.