A Special Sister Story

I’m sitting with my sister tonight as she is diligently working on her homework assignment from her College of Adaptive Arts Film Studies class, which is to watch her very favorite tv show of all times, Life Goes On, with her very favorite actor of all time, Chris Burke who plays Corky Thatcher. I’m mesmorized observing her furrowed brow intently focused on being a college student and knowing she can be successful with her assignment. My heart is full.

I co-founded College of Adaptive Arts in 2009 with my business partner, Pamela Lindsay, to give an equitable collegiate experience to adults with special needs who historically have not had access to college education. Certainly my inspiration for co-founding College of Adaptive Arts has been my experience growing up with such a beautiful sister.

When Angel was born on August 8, 1973, my mom told me the story that the baby was immediately whisked away, and a doctor came in about 10 minutes later and told my mom that unfortunately the baby she just delivered would never be able to walk, talk, clothe herself, feed herself, and it was recommended that the baby be placed in an institution. My my vividly told me that she knew there was no way they had time to do any tests. She feared the worst that the baby was severely deformed. She demanded to see her baby.  Coming from rural Indiana with a high school degree, my mom is not one to mince words. She said she held that warm, soft, snuggly, baby, counted 10 fingers and 10 toes, and told the doctor, “Thanks but no thanks, I’m taking my baby home, and don’t ever step in this room again!”

So that’s how my life changed as Angel came into our family 16 months after I was born. My memories of Angel are ones of laughter, singing, dancing, comedy, and so much joy. One of my most vivid childhood memories is watching the Dallas show with my family on Friday nights – wondering who killed JR Ewing. My entire family (and I think everyone in America) was glued to the TV on Friday nights in the late seventies and early eighties. During commercials, my job was to hold a wooden spoon as a microphone and introduce my sister in the middle of the living room performing various acts of singing and dancing. She often wore a towel wrapped around her neck as a cape. She was absolute boundless in her energy to sing, dance, and entertain.

I distinctly remember the frustration I would feel, though, when she would go out in the community, and behaviors that I had just watched her do at home, she would not do out in the community.  Often she wouldn’t talk, or she would ask someone to get her something, or just completely shut down; it was absolutely maddening to observe. I began to realize that she had a keen sense of awareness of how she was being received by others. If others treated her like a normal person, she would naturally act her normal self. If they treated her like a baby, she enjoyed the special treatment of being overly coddled. If she could tell that they thought she had no abilities, she had no problem just not responding at all. It made me realize how astutely keen she was to other’s perceptions of her abilities.

Comedy has always been her true and natural gift. My mom told me once of a time when Angel was a teenager and mom took her to a Bible study class on Wedneday night. Each person in the class had a chance to say a prayer out loud at the end of the class. When it was Angel’s turn, she waited until the room was quiet and then proceeded to pray, “Dear Lord, please let my mom stop cussing.” She very much knows how to get a laugh, and her timing is still absolutely impeccable.

It has been my highest honor to join forces with Pamela Lindsay to begin College of Adaptive in 2009. I certainly know first-hand that these adults are so very capable and joyful and so hungry to learn and show that they too can be successful contributing citizens to the best of their abilities. They want a safe and engaging place to continue to learn and grow and flourish to the full potential. CAA adjusts the metaphorical lens of adults with special needs from a focus on their disabilities to a focus on their abilities. It has been a riveting and transformative ride, and we are seeking everyone out there interested to help be a part of history in the making to take this educational model nationwide to provide a lifelong, equitable collegiate experience. My sister, Angel, guides me each day to explore new possibilities, celebrate the journey, and never, ever give up.