Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Travis Rudolph and the Boy with Autism

You've seen the viral posts...
"Autistic boy scores a touchdown..."
"Autistic boy has the basketball game of his life..."
"Blind, autistic man stuns the music world..."

Seems like people with autism are constantly making the news for performing extraordinary feats or being treated... with dignity.

Case in point... I came across this story this morning (and so did a bunch of my friends - I always appreciate when people share stories like this with me because I want to pass them along ) and immediately thought that this was pretty awesome. If you haven't seen or heard about this, FSU wide receiver Travis Rudolph was visiting a middle school with some teammates when he saw a boy in the cafeteria eating by himself, so he went and sat with him. What he didn't know was that the little boy has autism, and the boy's mom posted on social media about the encounter.

Here's the mom's post:

Several times lately I have tried to remember my time in middle school, did I like all my teachers, do I even remember them? Did I have many friends? Did I sit with anyone at lunch? Just how mean were kids really? I remember one kid on the bus called me "Tammy Fay Baker" bc I started awkwardly wearing eye liner in the sixth grade, I remember being tough and calling him a silly name back, but when he couldn't see me anymore I cried. I do remember middle school being scary, and hard. Now that I have a child starting middle school, I have feelings of anxiety for him, and they can be overwhelming if I let them. Sometimes I'm grateful for his autism. That may sound like a terrible thing to say, but in some ways I think, I hope, it shields him. He doesn't seem to notice when people stare at him when he flaps his hands. He doesn't seem to notice that he doesn't get invited to birthday parties anymore. And he doesn't seem to mind if he eats lunch alone. It's one of my daily questions for him. Was there a time today you felt sad? Who did you eat lunch with today? Sometimes the answer is a classmate, but most days it's nobody. Those are the days I feel sad for him, but he doesn't seem to mind. He is a super sweet child, who always has a smile and hug for everyone he meets. A friend of mine sent this beautiful picture to me today and when I saw it with the caption "Travis Rudolph is eating lunch with your son" I replied "who is that?" He said "FSU football player", then I had tears streaming down my face. Travis Rudolph, a wide receiver at Florida State, and several other FSU players visited my sons school today. I'm not sure what exactly made this incredibly kind man share a lunch table with my son, but I'm happy to say that it will not soon be forgotten. This is one day I didn't have to worry if my sweet boy ate lunch alone, because he sat across from someone who is a hero in many eyes. Travis Rudolph thank you so much, you made this momma exceedingly happy, and have made us fans for life! #travisrudolph #gonoles #autismmom #fansforlife

Awesome, right? Every single major news outlet seems to have taken notice. So did I... and I think this is pretty darn cool. My Will just started middle school, and I'd be DEVASTATED if I found out he was eating lunch by himself in the cafeteria every day.

But my warrior mama instincts kicked in almost immediately. Why was this boy eating alone in the first place? Why aren't his peers sitting with him? Does he want to sit alone? If so, what interventions are in place for him to socialize with his peers? Bravo to the young man for recognizing this boy was sitting alone and taking the initiative to go sit with him. 

The more I thought about it, the more this picture broke my heart. This mom shouldn't have to worry if her son is sitting alone at school... ever. This sweet boy with happens to have autism never should've been sitting alone in the first place.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Haiti... Part "The Last Couple of Days"

By Friday of my trip to Haiti, I was finally done with cold showers. I was tired of the smell that accompanies used toilet paper that's not flushed but thrown into the garbage can (no flushing toilet paper in Haiti). After a grueling yet rewarding week, I was SO ready to go home. But first... some relaxation.

As an end-of-the-week treat, we drove over an-hour-and-a-half to the Wahoo Bay Beach Club & Resort in Carries. It felt like another world - the swimming pool, the bar with the super sweet rum punches, the Olympics playing on TV (we saw the end of the US Women's soccer match), and the ever-inviting Caribbean blue waters CALLED MY NAME. I was first into the water and stayed there for the next 4-5 hours with short breaks to eat and drink.

The day was filled with so much fun and laughter. See those floating trampolines in the picture above? We tried repeatedly to make it all the way across the slippery bridge between them and failed miserably. Repeatedly. There were plenty of funniest home video attempts. But I'm happy to say that I finally made it across on my last attempt right before we left. It was awesome.

A highlight of the day... we hopped in a boat to go snorkeling. The water had gotten really choppy and the boat ride felt like a rollercoaster. We got to the drop off spot and the captain gave us goggles, but no snorkels. We called it "goggling." We saw like 3 tiny fish as we tried desperately not to step on the corral reef below us. Thank goodness we had on life jackets... we wouldn't have made it without them. But boy did we have fun. There were so many laughs.

This was definitely a highlight of the trip... and an awesome way to spend our last day in Haiti.

We made our way back to Port-au-Prince and at one point smelled the most awful smell. Apparently we passed near the area where the victims of the Haiti earthquake were buried in a mass grave. 

We also stopped by Haiti's Olympic training center and snapped a group pic...

Then it was time to head back to our house and pack. Then we spent one more night enjoying Haiti from the rooftop while we bonded and affirmed each other. It was amazing.

Early the next morning we were up and everyone was getting ready for the airport drop offs. I knew I'd be emotional... but leaving was hard. We'd been warned to be aware of certain feelings - guilt for being home, sadness for not being in Haiti with the children anymore, anger at people for being small-minded... and I've experienced every single one of them. I've been home for almost two weeks but I still don't feel settled. There's still a longing for Haiti. There's no doubt I left a little piece of me there.

Which is why I plan on going back next summer and take friends with me. And in the meantime, I'll continue to support I'm Me and all of the great work they are doing in Haiti. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

The First Day of School 2016

Bryn started 3rd grade today and Will's in middle school!

Haiti... Part 5

It's time to introduce you all to my friend Banner. This child right here... meet Banner.

Banner stays in I'm Me's main house - he needs a little extra care. I'm Me found baby Banner abandoned on the side of the road. He was wearing nothing but a Hulk shirt, so they decided to name him Banner. Banner has cerebral palsy and is doing pretty well. His sweet voice was like a wake up call every morning. We all would gather upstairs to play with him before heading out for the day. And he was always waiting for us when we got back. I miss him every morning! He's a big reason why I'll go back.

On Wednesday, we hit the halfway point on our trip and I was pooped. Luckily, we had a pretty mellow day - we set out to check out some local charities/organizations in the area.

Our first stop that morning was PeaceCYCLE. Talk about doing good... this company takes empty water bags and turns them into usable items like tote bags. See, in Haiti, the drink water out of these little pouches that kind of look like a sealed Ziploc bag. People bite open the bag, drink the water, then throw the bags on the ground. Trash receptacles were anomalies - there was no need for them since everyone just throws garbage on the ground.

Well, this company has found a way to recycle and re-purpose those water bags. Their operation is pretty cool. It was need to see the plastic bag being ironed by a charcoal-heated iron. Then the individual bags are combined. It's such a neat way to recycle trash.

You can find more information about PeaceCYCLE here.

After leaving PeaceCYCLE we went over to the day camp for some fun. We played bingo and duck-duck-goose with the kids. We spent less time with the kiddos this time... we headed out back to our next location - the Clay Cafe. The Clay Cafe is part of Papillon Enterprise. As soon as we finished our burgers and fresh fruit smoothies at the cafe (and lapped up as much free wifi as we could) it was time for the tour of Papillon.

The story about how Papillon started is a wonderful one. A woman was going to adopt a baby in Haiti. As I understand it, at some point in the adoption process the woman learned that the baby actually had parents who wanted to keep her but they couldn't afford her because it's so hard to get good paying work in Haiti. So Papillon was formed to create jobs so parents can work and have means to support their children. There is also a nursery - any children of the workers under the age of 3 can come to work everyday so the parents don't have to worry about child care. Really awesome stuff.

The craftsmen and women make jewelry, dolls, purses, tree ornaments... you name it. They actually make their own clay and glass beds for their jewelry. The craftsmanship on the products was amazing. I bought some great items including a clay bracelet and a Christmas nativity scene that can fit inside of a coconut! It's one of my new favorite things. 

You can find out more about Papillon here.

The rest of the day was pretty mellow - we knew we had to gear up for the following day.


We'd been warned it was going to be tough. We were driving a couple of hours away to a place called Cauda Bouquet. This little village right in the middle of a desert was heartbreaking and eye-opening all at the same time. We'd been warned that kids might be naked because they don't have clothes. We saw numerous little boys with shirts on just not long enough to cover their private parts.There was even one little boy wearing a little purple dress. I found out later that the kids were making fun of him. Broke my heart. I don't know if the kids felt ashamed that they were unclothed. But we made it our mission to show them it was all good. We played soccer and painted nails while some of the I'm Me gents washed the feet of the village moms. The kids always love to be held, so we'd pick them up and gave big hugs. It was a long, hot, day that I will never forget. 

I have no pictures... we were asked not to take any since I'm Me is doing it's best to build a relationship with the village people. And of course, the nakedness was a concern. But I promise you... it was a sight to see. 

That night was another great night. One of the I'm Me staffers who had been in Haiti for almost a year was finally going home Friday. So we honored him that night. People from the community he's worked with joined us. It was a great night of fellowship and love for Keith. I called him "Vanilla Latte."

That was the first night we slept on the roof. The power had gone out and we weren't sure when it would come back on so we decided to sleep on the cool roof. See we dragged mattresses up to the roof and chilled. The Perseid meteor shower gave us a great show! And I got ZERO sleep. I made my way back downstairs and was thrilled that the electricity popped back on shortly thereafter - I had a big ol' master blaster fan to myself that night.

The morning after the slumber party

Almost to the end... just Friday and Saturday to go! Check back soon!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Haiti... Part 4

After two pretty intense days in Haiti, it was time for some chill. Tuesday morning, we piled into a tap-tap to take us into the hills for an adventure. Tap-taps are common modes of transportation in Haiti. People load up and they tap when they are ready to get out.

The ride to a hill town called Furcy was a long, bumpy one. But goodness, was it worth the ride. Our first stop was a hillside restaurant called the Rustik. This unique spot channeled the Swiss Family Robinson with it's wood decks and ambiance. It's one of the coolest places I've ever seen.

We clowned around for a bit before embarking on our trek.

After chowing down on some PB&J sandwiches, we ventured down the hill to a scenic look out spot for some quiet time. It felt like we were in a different world. It was so hot and humid in Port-au-Prince and the cooler air in the mountains was appreciated. It was breathtaking. 

But really... we went up to Furcy to meet Anita. Anita makes the best coffee in the world. We watched as she boiled sugar cane in water, then filtered the coffee into the sweetened water. I don't drink much coffee anymore, but this was absolutely divine. I had two cups! We were served in the most dainty teacups in such a rustic environment. We had a wonderful time - we even danced to Justin Bieber (true story). This was definitely a highlight of the trip.

There was so much beauty and life in Haiti. Seriously - beautiful people and children everywhere who were always smiling. 

Good thing we enjoyed ourselves so much because what goes down, must go up... we had to climb back up that hill we'd hiked down. It was hell. But we did it! My new friend Cat and I even had a Prestige together at the Rustik when we made it back up the hill. Prestige is a Haitian beer - so good! Really enjoyed it. I'm trying to find it here in the states.

If you look close, you can see a woman on the hill we climbed.

Struggling... after the hike.

Back at the house that night, we got to hang out with the I'm Me kiddos and just have some chill. Tuesday was definitely a highlight of the trip!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Haiti... Part 3

The next couple of days in Haiti were awesome. Difficult, but awesome.

Monday we were able to sleep in a bit... and by "sleeping in" I probably didn't roll out of bed until 6 a.m. The sun rises super early in Haiti, so with wide open windows (to allow any breeze in), we always woke up early.

Monday was our first day of attending summer day camp. We'd been told that for some of the kiddos who attend, day camp might be their only meals for the week. One child even walked about 2.5 hours each way to participate. We jumped rope, hula hooped, and played soccer before we sat with the kiddos for worship and crafts. Monday was the first day I carried my camera with me. Prior to that, taking pictures just felt intrusive. But I'd ask the kiddos if I could take their pics, and they obliged.

We all showed up in grey - total coincidence.

Sweet Joanna - she speaks perfect English. She is a sweetheart.

Little Memaw - we now help sponsor her every month.

After camp, we geared up for an emotional trip to a local orphanage - Maison des Enfants de Dieu. Some of what I saw is breathtaking. I watched a young girl with autism cling to Anthony as he played her music on his phone. I watched kids laughing as they were being rolled around by other kids in a wheel barrow. There was an older girl there with severe cerebral. I couldn't help but think about the care she would receive here in the states as I constantly swatted away flies around her mouth and sores. I saw a little girl who was missing a leg and some of her fingers smile and laugh as she mad her way around the infant room. I lasted in the toddler room about two minutes... the 2-3 year olds swarmed and would climb all over you. My mama instincts kept kicking in as they'd stand on top of their double decker beds. That room was chaos! It was at Maison that I learned about joy in Haiti. In the midst of adversity, these resilient children were so full of joy and just wanted to be laughed and loved. Despite the conditions, and some of them were bad - cribs stacked on each other that looked like cells, no air conditioning, flies - lots and lots of flies), there was joy.

After seeing these babies like this, I asked about adoption. It's apparently very expensive - I heard the sum $40,000 thrown out once. And it can take years - 4-7 is the typical time frame. It seemed so wrong that these kiddos would be deprived of loving families willing to adopt them.

But back to joy... there was a puppy at the orphanage. A PUPPY!!! I'd seen so many dogs running around the streets and I'd been told not to pet them (because of fleas, etc.). But this puppy was fair game. And I feel in love.

But the best part of the visit was hanging out with Wilson. Wilson has cerebral palsy and he's non-verbal, but he was so happy to see us. I sat next to him for a while to just chill and he started stroking my hair. So I took my bun out and let him go to town. We sat there together for 15 minutes. 

I learned that day that kids with disabilities are often abandoned - their parents just don't have the resources to care for them. The same goes for typically developing kids too. Our team leader Kyle told us that 87% of the orphans end up in that situation because of poverty, not because they are unwanted. As a mom, this really affected me. I realized how important organizations like I'm Me, myLIFEspeaks and this orphanage are - they want to keep families united so the function to give these families and kids a hand up... not a hand out. They are committed to equipping the folks of Haiti to be contributing members of society with the hope of maintaining families.

That night, we got to hang with the I'm Me kiddos and chill on the rooftop. It was another beautiful night of fun and fellowship. Both were needed after a long, emotional day.

As if that day hadn't been life changing enough, the following day was awesome. It deserves it's own post. Check back tomorrow!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Haiti... Part 2

Day 2 of my Haiti vision trip was one of the most difficult for me. Even now, it's hard for me to digest because what we experienced that day was very personal for me... it hit too close to home.

We woke up early and hit the road for a very long ride to the town of Neply for church. There, we were introduced to an incredible organization - myLIFEspeaks. I learned almost immediately that this organization provides orphan care for special needs kiddos (among other things). As their team played limbo with the neighborhood kids, I walked around the room and was drawn to a photo collage of their "kids." I read the stories about special needs and typically developing children, but I was drawn to one story in particular. Jay's.

I read the description next to his picture:

April 21, 2000 - September 30, 2012
Disabilities: Autism & Epilepsy
Jay was brought to myLIFEspeaks in April of 2012. Jay was turned out of his home at a young age and grew up on the streets of a neighboring village. Because he was different, Jay was well known and poorly treated. After he experienced a seizure that he did not recover from, Jay was memorialized and laid to rest with the highest honors of Haitian tradition. After living just six months as part of the myLIFEspeaks FAMILY, Jay's legacy was forever changed. He is dearly missed.

My eyes filled up with tears and my chest felt heavy so I stepped outside to get it together because I didn't want the kids inside to see me cry.  The thought of this boy being abandoned and bullied broke my heart. That sweet boy with autism who was about the same age as my own son didn't know what it felt like to be loved until this organization came along. When I tell you that I was deeply affected by this, I called Ryan days later sobbing. Jay had constantly been on my mind. It was hard to even talk about it. But I found some peace in knowing that this organization was there for him in his final months and made him feel loved.

I managed to pull it together for the church service that was held under a huge mango tree in front of the compound. The message was essentially about "to whom much is given, much is required." It was timely and on point for me.

We ate Haitian pate for lunch - it's basically a deliciously fried empanada. Later that afternoon we were given a tour around Neply and were able to see all of the great work myLIFEspeaks is doing there. The organization recently purchased land to build a soccer field - we were able to visit the exact spot. They sponsor a medical clinic. We even got to meet some of their kids who have been placed with families in the neighborhood.

A house in Neply

At one point during the tour, we came upon a voodoo temple - voodoo is widely practiced in Haiti. Someone suggested praying in front of the temple. The group stood together and prayed but I stood off to the side and tried to have a conversation with two young girls who were watching us (they speak Creole - I failed miserably). I guess I figured I would never stand in front of a mosque or a temple and pray that those people find Jesus (that's just me) so why would I start now. And I probably watched the movie Angel Heart too many times growing up - I didn't want any of that voodoo juju near me. I did say a private prayer later though.

That afternoon, I swore I was gonna die. I'd volunteered to sit in the back of our truck for the 2 hour ride back to Port-au-Prince with the Haitian sun beating down on us. Big mistake. Huge. At one point we came to a complete stop because the police were apparently arresting someone for not having the proper i.d. ahead. We sat there for a good 20 minutes without moving. It was absolutely miserable. That's when I decided I was really ready to come home... which also meant I was exactly where I needed to be. The whole reason I went on this trip was to step outside of my comfort zone and struggle a bit with the hope of gaining perspective and achieving personal growth. Mission accomplished.

More posts to come!