My daughter, Annie, was born blind due to a congenital retinal disease called Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis (LCA).

She’s an adventurous, fun-loving kid who loves exploring new things outside. In early November 2014, we were in Boston for a special event for kids with vision impairments at the New England Aquarium (sponsored by the Massachusetts Association of Parents of the Visually Impaired).

After, I decided we should experience the city and walk the several blocks to the North End for lunch. We found a quiet, family-run, Italian restaurant (Pagliuca’s) and sat down for a great meal and wonderful service. When I asked for the bill, the waitress said “No bill, you’re all set.”

I protested, saying it was kind but unnecessary. A part of me was thinking, “We don’t need anyone’s pity! We are so far beyond that…”

She insisted. She said a regular, who would remain anonymous, had watched us walk into the restaurant — Annie with her cane — and he just wanted to do something nice for us.

I asked if I could buy the person a glass of wine or coffee as a thank you.

“No, he doesn’t drink either.”

As we approached the front door to leave, thanking almost everyone in sight, the same waitress came up and stuck something in my pocket and said, “He also wants you to buy something nice for her at Christmas.”

I thought to protest again but was overcome by the kindness. It was not pity at all — just someone who felt the need to do something nice at that moment. When we got outside, I found a $100 bill in my pocket.

This is a photo from the same day…

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We’ve pledged to pay it forward, in story and in-kind, so that my own kids and many others will know: there are good people out there. Choose to be one of them.

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Recently, I was sitting in church, and the pastor was talking about the impact of losing a loved one.

Instantly, the tears began to fall. I was taken back to the previous spring of 2014 when my infant son, Dylan, unexpectedly passed away. The pain of that day cannot be measured or expressed adequately. His death left an enormous hole behind in my family’s life.

What started out as silent, small tears turned into gut-wrenching sobs. I tried to control them since I was in a public place, but the pain was too overwhelming, and even though I muffled them as best I could, I was embarrassed.

When I went to pick up my two older daughters from Sunday school afterwards, a woman standing behind me gently tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Are you all right?” I turned around and was shocked to recognize her; she’d been sitting in the row in front of me. Had she heard me crying? Did she think I was crazy? I was mortified and wished I could melt away right on the spot.

Before I could say anything, she confirmed my suspicions by saying, “I noticed you were crying in service earlier. I just want to make sure you’re OK.” The tears started to pool at the corners of my eyes as I thought about covering up the honest answer with the convenient, “I’m fine.” But something happened in that moment when I looked into that woman’s eyes. I didn’t see admonishment or judgment or even pity but rather concern and kindness. Her gentle probing broke down my walls, and I blurted out, “My son passed away a few months ago, and I am still dealing with his loss.”

The woman reached out and pulled me into an embrace and said, “I am so sorry.” I rested in her comforting arms for several moments, completely amazed by the kindness and compassion this stranger demonstrated in the most unexpected way. In that moment, she was my hero because I’d been overwhelmed by how isolated I felt from my son’s death. Her ability to see a stranger in need was a powerful act of love and kindness.

This incident set in motion the beginning of our friendship. She’s now become a close friend and has been there for me when I needed a shoulder to cry on. None of that would be possible if she had not reached out to me, a stranger in pain.

For all of February, The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe the moment a stranger — or someone you don’t know very well — showed you or a loved one incredible love. No gesture is too small! If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please  include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

This post originally appeared on Jenna Brandt’s Blog.

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IMG_4809 My son, Elias, wheels joy into the angst and insecurity of shopping malls and school hallways.

People turn at the sound of metal and rubber stalking them. They’re surprised by a small blond boy with a walker. And their faces change. They brighten.

Sometimes their smiles are more nervous than joyous, but even these nervous smiles offer a flicker of light.

***

Three teens, dressed in black with chains, multiple piercings and elongated ear holes, go out of their way to hold the doors to the mall open for Elias.

They wait patiently and watch Elias with delight as he maneuvers his walker not around but over every crack and bump in the sidewalk. He calls them speed bumps and will go out of his way to find uneven ground.

Like the teens holding the doors, Elias will not take the straight path.

And by the way they smile, I see the little boy in each of them, instead of their darker exteriors, a look that frightens me because it’s so different than my own.

I don’t know why we fear what we don’t know. Is it a genetic trait passed down from our ancestors to keep us safe from Saber-toothed jaws? Are we socialized to respond to our own kind?

***

Two first grade boys sit in the hallway and watch Elias and me as we arrive late for morning preschool class. One of them stares at Elias’s walker with a quizzical look. The other one smiles.

The skeptical one asks, “Why does he use that?”

“To help him walk,” I explain.

“He can’t walk?” the boy responds.

“No, not yet.”

The smiley one says: “When he’s a kid he’ll probably be able to walk because he’s just a pre-schooler.”

I smile, “We hope so.”

“Why can’t he walk?” asks the boy who has yet to smile.

“Well, it’s kinda complicated. His brain has a hard time talking to his muscles.”

As I say this, Elias goes over to the boys, lets go of his walker, holds onto their chairs and says, “Hi!!!!”

The smiley one says,  “Hi!!!! What’s your name?”

“Yia”

“His name is Elias, “ I clarify.

The boy introduces himself and his friend.

“Can he walk without it?” asks the quizzical one, as Elias cruises from one chair to another.

“He can do what he is doing now, hold onto things and cruise, but if he lets go he loses his balance.”

“Does he fall down?”

“Yes, he falls down a lot — but he’s pretty tough.”

Still no smile. Still not sure.

“How does he get around at home? On his knees?”

“Yeah, he still crawls.”

The smiley one asks Elias in a sing song voice, “Can you show me how you crawl?”

Elias, as if we practiced this, moves to the floor and crawls around the corner of the hallway.

And the skeptic finally smiles.

Both boys get up to follow Elias.

The smiley one reaches his hand down to Elias and says, “Here, I’ll help you up.”

As Elias stands and struggles to find his center of balance, the boy says to me: “I can tell he has a hard time walking”.

I give Elias my hand, and together the boy and I walk him to his classroom.

The skeptical one stands behind us with a smile. It is not as warm and open as his friend’s, but in the space of a small conversation he moved from scared and unsure to OK.

That’s progress.

I think it’s easier for kids to make these shifts then it is for adults who live within facades of political correctness, too afraid to admit they aren’t always comfortable with what they don’t know. Terrified of giving the wrong reaction, we sometimes avoid situations with uncertainty. I know I still gravitate towards people who look and act like me. So much so that my own child can scare me.

But he won’t let me hide.

And I love him too much to stay in my own tent and avoid the unknown.

So we travel.

The truth is, I sometimes find the general tasks of parenthood — waking, feeding, changing, responding, comforting, teaching — more challenging than visual impairment and cerebral palsy.

Sometimes preparing a healthy breakfast every morning without fail, the relentless routine of daily care, the drudgery of endless repetition, is worse than walking through the mall with a legally blind boy and his walker.

I revel in the unexpected joy we give and receive.

***

A man with temporary crutches waits at the elevator with Elias and me. He smiles as Elias bounces and says, “abater” over and over again.

“Is he yours or are you watching him?”

“He’s mine.”

“He may have challenges, but he’s awfully cute.”

“Thanks.” I smile.

And then this stranger in the mall gives me this gift, this way of asking Elias’s story, which breaches the perceived distance between us all:

“I know I have a lot of challenges. What are some of his?”

Follow this journey on Following Elias.

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Whether you have a mental illness or not, chances are pretty high that you’ve experienced a total breakdown at least once. Stress and anxiety are a part of everyday life. Sometimes, a breakdown seems like the absolute end of the world, a moment consumed by emotions, thoughts, boxes of tissues and maybe some chocolate. Those prone to regular breakdowns are people, such as myself, living with generalized anxiety disorder. Even though my sensitivity towards stressors is much higher than an average person, coping with a breakdown doesn’t get easier, just simpler.

Here are a few things that act as my friendly reminders that everything will be OK.

1. Pictures

I take a ton of pictures. Some may say I take an absurd amount. I have good reasoning behind my intentions though, considering not every picture turns out to be “picture perfect.” I like being able to have a gazillion pictures to choose from when I’m changing up the ones on my bedroom wall. The ones that bring back good memories and are with people who mean a lot to me usually make the cut. With the important people in my life living both near and far, looking at pictures reminds me that I’m loved and have a purpose.

2. Daily Planner

I keep things messy, but my life is completely organized. I started using a planner in middle school to keep track of my work — homework, tests, projects and so on. By habit, ever since then, I’ve had what I like to call my life planner. Having everything visually available to me makes me feel important in the sense that I can see I have things to do and am needed for something. Even writing down upcoming events, vacations or dinner plans is nice to have scrolled out for your own well-being.

3. Working Out 

Working out releases endorphins and adrenaline, boosting my mood and energy level. Getting into a workout routine is not easy, but once I’m in it, there’s no better feeling. I dread getting out of bed, let alone working out, when I’m upset. But without fail, exercise does the trick perfectly (and conveniently, sometimes, on my apartment floor.)

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4. Fresh Conversations

Believe it or not, it’s not always the best thing to only surround myself with the people I’m closest with. Having a fresh conversation is a great reminder that there’s room to expand my horizons and speak about things I wouldn’t normally. It in turn can change my entire outlook in a matter of minutes.  I don’t need to find a stranger and start talking to them, but I try striking up a conversation with a co-worker or coffee barista.

5. Karma

That five letter K-word. I normally associate it with negativity, as it seems the only time it’s spoken about is when someone has a grudge against someone else. In the case of a breakdown, it serves as a positive reminder to me that for all the good I may have done for others, they will be there for me as a support system. What goes around really does come around. Kindness counts!

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michelle Recently, our daughter, Arianna, has undergone major surgery. Due to scoliosis (which is a part of Williams syndrome for many kids), she had 11 vertebrate fused and rods and screws added to her back. The few weeks leading up this surgery were torture; she’s considered “high risk,” and the surgery would be a long one – it ended up lasting eight hours.

The day of the surgery, some interesting characters, clearly sent by the heavens for our entertainment, distracted us int he waiting room. We were grateful. These moments of people-watching were broken up by taking turns in the hospital chapel to pray, periods of teary outbursts and updates from the OR.

Eight hours later, we got to see our girl and start the journey to healing.

During our few days in the hospital, I was reminded of things I’d learned from the time in my life when my daughter was diagnosed. Here are some of the gems:

1. I am constantly surprised by the people who I thought would be there for us and those who actually are.

2. There are those who get it and those who don’t – the ones who get it are the greatest source of strength during this time.

3. Most of life is unimportant. Love and family are all that really matter.

4. In our families eyes, my daughter is not different. She is family, our love, our light, our blood, our soul and our heart. We will advocate and fight and give up every ounce of ourselves for her when we need to.

5. In the same way, we love our daughter just for being her. So do many others – children and adults alike. It also becomes clear who doesn’t really care and that’s OK – at least we know now.

5. Peers are wonderful – the love and support Ari has received from her classmates is heart-melting. I’m amazed beyond words. Without her friends, visits and FaceTime, this long period out of school would have been far more torture.

6. Gratitude, faith and prayer sustain us when things are difficult.

That’s just some of the lessons I’m reminded of. I’ll possibly share more but right now, my girl is waking from sleep and well, that’s what’s most important.

This post originally appeared on Successful Exceptional Education.

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Respite care can be a Godsend but also a double-edged sword.

Being the primary caregiver of a child with special needs is taxing. There’s no two ways about it. But I’m her mom, so I know her best. She was given to my husband and me, not to anyone else, and I want to be able to always do all that’s needed for my child. I’m the one who knows what her sounds mean, how she likes to wear her socks, and her favorite songs during diaper changes.

I struggled with the idea of respite. It gave me anxiety to think about it — and I thought about it a lot — especially after I signed my daughter up for a respite weekend at an amazing place: Jill’s House. Would I be able to go through with it? Would she know I was coming back? My heart ached with fear wondering how she would do on her first overnight.

These thoughts and countless more were swimming through my mind when Christina came to my house for a planning meeting one night, the week before my daughter’s first respite weekend. I’d only met Christina twice, through a moms group. And with all of our children running everywhere, we didn’t really get to know one another at all.

New to the group, I was this month’s hostess for the planning meeting. We planned and then, like all women, we chatted. I brought up my daughter, briefly mentioned her needs and spilled out my pent up anxieties about respite. The planned weekend was fast approaching.

With a thoughtful expression, Christina briefly revealed she had a sister with special needs. She charitably mentioned that during her childhood, her mom was never able to relinquish caregiving to another. With abounding gentleness, she encouraged me, saying respite was important for both me and my other children.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t need respite. But realizing what it would mean for my other children washed away much of my anxiety. I still have moments of doubt, anxiety, fear, worry, pride – but somehow, those simple few statements from Christina, from someone who’s been through a similar journey from a different perspective, helped me to focus on the needs of my other children, which I either neglect or almost always put second. They need to feel and be first sometimes. And respite helps me achieve that for them.

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For all of February, The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe the moment a stranger — or someone you don’t know very well — showed you or a loved one incredible love. No gesture is too small! If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected]themighty.com. Please  include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

Want to end the stigma around disability? Like us on Facebook.

And sign up for what we hope will be your favorite thing to read at night.

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