Once upon a time, on the shores of Lake Michigan, a little girl was born to a family with three boys (two more boys would join later). These children had loving parents and many adventures. While they never traveled the world, nor any of the contiguous states, they did a lot of camping, which to them was enough. They all graduated from High School but only one graduated from University. She married a Naval Officer, and did get a chance to travel the world.
There is a vast difference between a small town in northern Wisconsin and San Francisco or Honolulu, or Tokyo but there are also similarities. While traveling the world she did notice, thanks in part to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, that the people of Tokyo were similar to people she grew up with. Tokyo is after all made up of neighborhoods that are made up of people, good and bad, but mostly good. Just ordinary people who are all trying to figure out their purpose.
The marriage didn’t last, so I won’t bore you with the gruesome details. Falling in love again didn’t take long and the new couple went about the business of figuring out their purpose. The husband had that figured out pretty well, after having broken his neck at wrestling practice in high school, trying college and finding out that the world was not too hospitable for him and his wheelchair (circa 1960 something) he and some friends formed an organization to “fix” the access problems of people with disabilities. Society’s Assets was born and was well established as an Independent Living Center when he moved on to a policy position with the state.
Working for a nonprofit, she was learning firsthand how so many people with disabilities struggled to gain access to a society that sometimes feared them and often ignored them. Also, that people who have disabilities are just like those who don’t, they have hopes and dreams, and being in Wisconsin, they also like to party!
During this time they talked about starting a family, of course they exhausted the conventional methods for some time and finally consulted a fertility expert. If you were expecting that his broken neck was the problem, you’d be wrong. They did a bit of grieving and got on with busy lives. He perhaps better than she at the business of accepting and moving on, comes with the territory when you suddenly find yourself paralyzed at the age of fifteen.
They decided to become Foster Parents, they had a lot to offer to children, and there were plenty of children in need. The first child had been severely neglected, to the point that she no longer cried, having learned at the ripe old age of six months that a cry would yield nothing. Yes, she learned to cry quite quickly and with the help of her new extended family of friends with all different disabilities she began to flourish. There were more, the story of the first recovery led to more children who had been abused and neglected, twenty in ten years.
Most of the children were neonatally exposed to alcohol and drugs so they had varying degrees of issues to contend with. Imagine you were born via C-section after only 28 weeks gestation, weighing only 1 pound 3 ounces and addicted to Crack. Good news, NOW it is widely accepted that babies need to be tested for drugs at birth and treated accordingly. Not the case for this child, side note, white females are the most likely to survive these circumstances, and she was and is a fighter.
The ‘family’ of friends with disabilities taught these children many valuable lessons; believe in yourself, dream big, open your heart and mind to all the possibilities and especially, that all people have value. Their dad was so proud to pull a modified bike cart full of the youngest while those who could ride bikes safely followed along. Babies and toddlers we dealt with, equipment modifications aside, you love them, expose them to as much stimulation as they can tolerate and allow them to become whatever they can dream of. Was it easy? Short answer, no. Was it worth it? Absolutely!
Foster Parenting ended after ten years when we decided it was time to focus on the six children we had adopted. School was a constant struggle, there were some really great people like Rita S-Z who was always there even when she didn’t have to be. There were some truly misguided ones as well, like the assistant principal who chose to ignore the diagnosis from the Waisman Center. Graduation was equal measure pride and relief.
Along the way, we traveled with as many of them as possible. Our first love was camping, mostly in the beautiful State Parks in Wisconsin and on some longer journeys. Not that their weren’t other adventures, traveling by plane was a nightmare that usually ended in the airline damaging the wheelchair or sending it to the wrong city. There were some flights that went pretty smoothly, by our standards, often to D.C. for NCIL meetings. Most of these children knew the Smithsonian like the back of their hand. They are better for the experiences and because of all the people with disabilities, from other parts of the country and world they came into contact with who lived extraordinary lives.
Our children are now in their 20’s and 30’s, still trying to find their purpose, much as their father and I were at that age. Last year I thought I had rediscovered mine, I launched a nonprofit Gallery and Studio so that people like my children could come together with others and help support themselves while building a community of artists who have talents and disabilities. During the past year we have met some extraordinary individuals, both artists and art lovers.
Indigo Wings Inc. opened it’s doors in late 2015 and it has been a rocky road. Our space is nice, it’s the location that is a bit of a struggle to find. It is the best we could afford being largely self funded, but not the best for visibility. We will try to keep going but there is no guarantee.
We have been so lucky to have met so many amazing people who have influenced our children in so many positive ways over the years. As we get older, we have lost some, others have moved away, but the impressions they made on all those children they helped raise are part of the people they have become. I wish more children could be exposed to that rich a childhood. People with disabilities matter, diversity matters, tolerance matters. We are all citizens of the world and how we live our lives matters.