My oldest brother was born with Down Syndrome. While this is no longer necessarily viewed broadly as a “tragedy”, in the year of his birth, 1946, it was a significant condition that was looked upon as tragic, indeed. My parents, however, would have none of it; this was their first-born and my brother was as welcomed and cherished as any “normal” child would have been. Rather than surrender him to the State for institutionalization, as they were strongly advised to do by the Doctors and family and friends alike, my folks simply began raising him as they would any child … with love and the special attention his unique condition required.
I grew up cognizant of his uniqueness, of course, but he was my beloved big brother. He learned to read and taught the basics of that skill to me, even before I started school. He was funny – intentionally – and quick witted, loving and attentive to his three younger brothers and we all looked up to him. As I grew up, I was frequently exposed to many of his “special” friends and schoolmates; my parents were deeply involved – instrumental, actually – in his rapidly growing social and educational opportunities.
One of those opportunities was the establishment of a residential and day facility my parents, and countless other concerned parents and community members, realized after years of concerted effort and tireless advocacy. This facility was capable of housing up to fifty (then) Mentally Retarded youngsters requiring professional living assistance. Additionally, there were daytime programs related to education and pre-vocational training for dozens of others.
As a teenager, I occasionally joined my folks in the many fund-raising activities for this facility, and assisted my father in working around the grounds and buildings, as he did often on weekends and holidays. I grew up to be a builder; a General Contractor specializing in remodel and repair. Through the years, I participated in the needed work around the facility, attempting to mimic the extraordinary efforts of my parents – and myriad others – who supported this wonderful facility with their money, sweat and time.
Then one day, the facility found itself without an on-site maintenance man. The repairs started backing up – as did many of the toilets – and I was called in to help. One thing led to another and I was offered the maintenance job. It would be a bit of a stretch for me to still run my construction business and be on site at the facility nearly full time, but I worked it out.
What began, for me, as a temporary stop-gap measure to meet the immediate maintenance needs of the facility turned out to be the most rewarding – and satisfying – career move I ever made. The work was so needed, the beneficiaries of that work so deserving, the staff of the facility so grateful and cooperative, I ended up working there for over twelve years, eventually down-sizing my construction business for a time and taking over the responsibilities of the Facilities Manager.
My exposure to the “tragedy” of my brother’s birth, and the resultant involvement with the fine people – like my parents – who rallied to respond to the special needs of these unique people, led to the most meaningful and appreciated job of my entire working life.