Helping Our Son With Down Syndrome 'Wrestle With a Gorilla'

It is June 2015. The fog hovers over Carl Connelly Stadium in Aptos, California like a shroud, wrapped tightly around the 5 thousand spectators. It is graduation day and the stadium is ripe with enthusiasm and anticipation. The parents proud of their high school graduates and the road ahead. And perhaps, there is relief that they will soon have empty rooms in their homes.

For the graduates, the day is a long-time in the making. The structure that guided them to this point is dangling at the precipice of transition. A future with new freedoms, obligations and college soon at hand. This is an incredibly exciting time for most. A defining moment in the continuum of growing up.

And there, amid the 400+ graduates sat my son, Brandon. The lone student with Down syndrome in a sea of ebullient, college-bound students. My wife and I watched as this sea of bodies were called to the stage one-by-one to receive their diplomas. With the passing of each name, it became clear that the social fabric of my son’s life was about to end. His friends were being set free from the confines of parental supervision and block schedules, while he was left to a future less free and bright. Transition programs offered within the community college system were not the answer for him. He needed a place where his artistic talents and networking ability could flourish.

My wife and I soon realized it was incumbent on us to build a new structure where he could be an artist, meet a variety of people and learn the necessary skills he would need to become an independent, working citizen. Ultimately, you end up asking yourself, “is it all worth it?” The behind the scenes orchestrating of aides, support mechanisms, social networking, acting, art, college coursework and on and on it goes. And, when it is all said and done, how will we know we have achieved our goals when each door you open only reveals the next barrier? It is a circular process where the lines between success and failure are blurred by the constancy of the struggle. This is a daily grind that parents must embrace fully or success is a wave lost to the sand.

Former diplomat and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, Robert Strauss said: “Success is a little like wrestling a gorilla, you don’t quit when you’re tired — you quit when the gorilla is tired.”

Parents who love and support individuals with disabilities understand how hard it is to outlast the gorilla and attain success. Simply, it is easier at times to just submit. Throw your hands up and surrender to the systems in place, systems designed to help and support, but all too often falling short of their original intent. My experience working with my wife to maximize our son’s opportunities is these systems become enablers to sustain a lifestyle where poverty level dependence is the outcome.

Now 21, our son, along with us, continue to wrestle the gorilla. We are not going to give up any time soon. He has not given up on his dreams to be an actor, artist, model and spokesperson/advocate. He is not deterred by the barriers. We continue to find opportunities outside the traditional path and gladly take the arrows shot our way.

Recently, our son was asked to speak at a buddy walk in Portland, Oregon and echoed his message of work hard, choose kindness, and be yourself every day to achieve your goals. It was clear to my wife and me during his speech that he had become adept at wrestling the gorilla. He feared nothing and believes he can accomplish anything he sets his mind to.

As his name was called on that foggy June morning, we were elated and fearful. Elated that he overcame the high school struggles and achieved much. Fearful that this would be the pinnacle of his life and our collective energy to fight “our gorilla” would wane. Three years removed from graduation I am happy to say our fears were abated and our passion to help Brandon and others is stronger than ever.

Follow Brandon’s journey at 321 Life.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Find this story helpful? Share it with someone you care about.

Related to Down Syndrome

Group of women standing outside of a tattoo shop showing off their forearms which have three arrows tattooed.

Parents of Kids With Down Syndrome Across the Nation Are Getting This Tattoo

The idea started at a Ruby’s Rainbow retreat in Austin, Texas. A group of about 20 moms of kids with Down syndrome got together to meet in person. Among those moms was Mica May, a designer. They spent the day connecting, sharing stories, giving advice and encouraging each other. “We were hanging out. There was [...]
People with Down syndrome wearing green shirts and dancing in unison, arms up high, powerful

What It's Like to Coach a Dance Team for People With Down Syndrome

There are many cool things about my job at Down Syndrome of Louisville. I get to teach cooking classes, I get to plan social events, I host a book club, I get to take lots of photographs of happiness and love and share it on our social media. I get to meet amazing new families [...]

My Daughter With Down Syndrome Appreciates Keeping the Christmas Lights for Longer

This year we waited for the Christmas trees and decorations to be pulled down. Prompted mainly by our youngest child’s response last year when we took the decorations down on New Years’ Day. Hazel does not yet understand the why’s and wherefore’s of Christmas; she just embraces the magic of all she sees. Christmas lights make [...]
Little boy with Down syndrome on his first birthday sitting outside on blanket eating a cake with orange frosting and smiley face (maybe a crab cake)

I 'Unsubscribed' From 'Typical Development' for My Son With Down Syndrome

Many expectant mommies sign up for all things baby related. And I, like those mommies, followed suit. Free samples of formulas, diapers, foods. Baby registries, “What I need to know” newsletters and coupon emails. And of course, the trackers! Bump, Baby Essential, etc. I believe I had four going at one time during pregnancy. It’s [...]