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To the TV Actor Who Inspired Me to Embrace My Daughter’s Down Syndrome

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Dear Chris Burke,

I’ve written this letter dozens of times in my head, but now, seeing the words before me, they don’t seem right. No words seem to sum up how I feel about you. If only I could give you a hug.

Your show “Life Goes On” has been off the air for a couple of decades, yet your character, Corky, is still fresh in my mind. Funny, because I don’t remember many shows from my childhood, yet I remember yours. I like to think that God planned it that way.

Jennifer and her daughter, Willow.

Two and a half years ago, my youngest daughter, Willow, was born. It didn’t take long for doctors to notice Willow’s color was off. Turns out she had several heart defects. She was also diagnosed with Down syndrome.

Never have I experienced such joy and such pain. The beautiful girl before me seemed so fragile. I was devastated — but not for the reasons some might suspect.

In the days following Willow’s birth, doctors, nurses, friends and family kept asking me how I was coping and dealing with the news. My answer was always the same. I’d tell them the heart defects were what scared me, not Down syndrome. I meant it. While I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shocked by the diagnosis, I can honestly say I was at peace with it. It didn’t scare me. Why? Well, I think it has a lot to do with you.

Jennifer’s daughter, Willow.

Growing up, my encounters with people who had Down syndrome were few and far between. I can’t even recall meeting anyone with Down syndrome until I was a teenager. But my memory of your character Corky stands out. I remember you so fondly. You were lovable, funny and, most importantly, human. You laughed, you cried, you bickered with your family. You were “more alike, than different,” as the saying goes. My memory of you and your character is nothing but positive. And now, as a fairly new mother of a child with Down syndrome, my outlook for my daughter’s life is nothing but positive.

Since welcoming Willow, I’ve taken it upon myself to learn even more about you. My nap-time Google sessions have turned me from a fan into a super fan. Not only are you a great actor, you are the epitome of humility — especially when I think about your life after “Life Goes On.”

Your work as the Goodwill Ambassador for the National Down Syndrome Society is nothing short of inspiring to me. You used your fame to further your message. I even saw a news clip of you stuffing envelops for them. I try to imagine another actor doing the same. I love that you’re willing to do anything to spread awareness and acceptance of people with
Down syndrome.

While your time with the NDSS is over, I have no doubt that you’re still hard at work. I get the impression that that’s just who you are. I can understand it, too, watching all the time and effort my daughter puts into therapy and learning to walk. Hard work is a part of you. And I’m here to tell you that because of your hard work, my daughter’s life is a little easier. You’ve paved the way. Thank you. Seriously, thank you.

Forgive me if this letter seems jumbled, broken or doesn’t even make sense. I’m having a hard time typing through the tears. Have I mentioned you’re the only actor I’ve ever written a fan letter to? I’ve always thought the idea sounded silly. I imagine most actors don’t even read their mail. Why pour the time and energy into something that won’t even
be seen or read? But you? You’re worth it. I really want you to know that.

Every once in awhile, I catch myself humming the theme song to “Life Goes On.” How clever. How true. Life really does go on, whether we’re on board or not. Thank you for being you and inspiring me to embrace my daughter’s diagnosis and enjoy the ride before us.

Thank you again, and God bless.

P.S. Could you give your mom a hug for me?

Follow this journey on The Mighty Willow.

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Have you seen the first film with a national release to star a person with Down syndrome? Check out the film “Where Hope Grows” today!

Available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes.

Originally published: February 16, 2016
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