My name is Ann Mullins, the proud mother of Will, and Matt, who unfortunately could not be here this weekend.
First thank you so much for asking me to speak today; it is a real honor. This morning, I’d like to tell you a little about Will’s life and how we got to Stewart, and I say ‘we’ because as all of you know, anything to do with Stewart is a family thing. First, Will’s life has been a series of surprises, challenges, and great happiness for me, the rest of our family, and our extended family. Will was born in Denver, CO in March of 1985. Did I get that right, Will?[said to Will who is in the audience] He already had an older brother Matt and many aunts, uncles and grandparents to welcome him into the world. Will was born with Down Syndrome and soon after he was born his Dad and I were sent to a ‘genetic counselor’ who presented us with several options for Will’s long term care. He was an older man – probably as old as I am now, maybe a little older – and he clearly did not recognize what an extraordinary child Will was, also didn’t acknowledge how engaging and cute he was even at such a young age. This was 30 years ago and the options he presented were unacceptable to us, except for taking Will home and loving him with all the capacity we had, so that’s what we did.
At times I wondered what his life would be and hoped but never imagined how full and happy a life he would have. He began early intervention classes through Denver City & County at 4 months old and continued through the Denver School system. We were lucky our school system was very supportive and forward thinking. There were conflicts of course, fighting to have Will included in the right classes; arguing for the most appropriate curriculum; disputes over the paras, teachers ‘assistants, they were short in supply and each special group whether the G & T’s, Gifted and Talented, or the special ed students deserved a para more than the other. These actually were the toughest situations, as all of you know, every student, whatever their ability, deserves academic support but some people were harder to convince of that.
At home Will had to pull his weight, no special treatment there, sorry Will. His Dad and I both worked full time and all 4 of us had our responsibilities at home. When my niece and nephew came to live with us for a period of time, Will and Matt had to be the responsible older brothers, setting an example for the younger kids. Will, like his brother was compassionate, understanding, but firm in what was appropriate and acceptable in our home. It was a side of Will I had never seen – but I would see more of it at Stewart. He had become the role model instead of always the youngest sibling.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t cause trouble. He would terrorize his brother. In fact it was push and pull constantly, but I think that was a good thing, a somewhat normal thing for two brothers. At first when Matt would tell me the terrible things Will did to him I was a little skeptical, but as I watched more closely, I realized Will had figured out exactly how to get to Matt and he did so very quietly and but very effectively. Of course I had to discipline, but part of me was proud of Will for exerting himself, especially to an older brother who was easily twice his size. The other side of this was Matt, in true brotherly fashion, gave Will as much trouble as he could get away with. Sometimes this didn’t result in the best of situations, but again I think it was good, because we were functioning as a family of very different personalities and capabilities, and Will, just like the rest of us, had to stick up for himself, be resourceful and, consequently, developed a strong sense of self.
Watching Will grow up and mature was so wonderful, but even I, at times, underestimated him. I’d like to tell a quick story about Will, is that okay Will? I was told when Will was a toddler that he would not talk as soon as other children. I was really disturbed, I so enjoyed the beginning of conversations with our older son Matt, saw how important it was for him to communicate, start to verbalize what was around him and understand his place in the world, even if that was at first limited to our house and neighborhood in Denver. I wanted the same thing for Will. Someone suggested looking into sign language. Through a wonderful program at the Children’s Hospital in Denver; Will’s dad and I and his brother Matt learned rudimentary sign language – American Sign Language. I was so excited – Will would be able to communicate with us and we wouldn’t need to wait until he could talk. One evening I dove right in – I tried to teach him how to ask for a cookie, SIGN – I WANT A COOKIE, all I got was a blank stare, I tried again, SIGN, this time he turned away, after the third try I got no response; I realized I would have to approach this differently, this wouldn’t be as easy as I thought or had hoped. I went to bed disappointed but ready to try again the next day. We sat down for breakfast the next morning, everyone – except Will – chatting about their day and Will tapped me on the arm and signed – SIGN- I WANT A COOKIE – I want a cookie.
He had learned, he wanted to learn, this was going to work, but he was going to do it on his own schedule. Will learned quite a bit of sign language, taught his grandmother, his aunts and uncles and other kids. What was apparent that even at 2 years old, Will wanted to be in charge of his life, do things his way and it was up to us parents, teachers, brother to provide the opportunities so that he could accomplish all that he is capable of.
To finish the story, Will and I had a kind of road show, we would go to other classes and even other schools, to show how rewarding and satisfying it was to substitute sign language for talking, for those children who would be delaying in talking. There was a group that worried that someone like Will would depend on signing and be further delayed in talking, but that wasn’t the case. The last time we did one of our presentations, we finished and we were supposed to sign thank you – SIGN THANK YOU – but Will refused, I asked again and he refused again, he looked at me and then at the audience and said Thank You. Again, Will responding to things on his own schedule, but always learning and not always listening to his mother.
But as Will finished high school, I began to realize, I and the rest of the family could not provide what Will needed to keep living the life he was used to. Not just academic advancement, but also the fulfillment that comes from a rich social life. I saw Will digress a bit. He became quieter, less engaged and sorry to say it Will, quite obstinate and difficult to handle at times. He acted out and lashed out in frustration at what I began to realize was him feeling that he was being left behind. His friends were going to college, his brother was leaving home, academics were becoming less challenging and his social life was disappearing. It was a difficult time for us; I didn’t know what I could do for my son. I had researched many options but none seemed right. I had run across information about a school named Stewart Home School, then my mother called and asked if I had ever looked into Stewart, which she had heard about from one of her friends. We scheduled a visit, we got lost in Franklin on the way to school and discovered what a charming city it is, we arrived at the main gate; I saw those stone pillars, that manicured lawn, and the plantation houses and my first thought was that we should go back home and get really dressed up for this visit. Being from Colorado Will and I had never seen a place quite like this, a little intimidated, not sure this was the right place, but as soon as we walked in Sandy’s office – as all of you know, we felt at home. After meeting David Sellwood and other staff and having a tour of the campus, I began to think this might work.
Will went to Stewart Home School that summer of 2005 for a kind of summer camp, a test of how he would get along at Stewart. We had visited, but as impressed as I was with the school, I didn’t know if it would work for Will and the rest of the family to have him so far away.
Of course Will loved it. He came home from the summer a different boy, healthier, more talkative, more independent, and so confident. He went back to his high school for the fall semester but it was a disappointment for everyone compared to Stewart. It didn’t take long for us to make the decision for Will to go back to Stewart full time. I took him to school on the day after Christmas in 2005, he was so excited he could barely had time to say good-bye to me. With mixed feelings I drove back to the Cincinnati airport. It is hard as a mother to let any child go especially a child like Will who I had to fight so hard for, push a little harder, be a little more patient, put up with some intolerance and at times rejection of him, but in the end what is best is Will is being in an environment where he can make the most of life for himself and the others around him and right now that is Stewart Home School. Will is part of a community one in which he can be a leader or a follower, a mentor or mentee, an caregiver or care receiver, he can ride horses or play hand bells, do ‘dinner and a movie’ or go to state basketball finals. He can grow and mature and turn into the fine young man he is. At one time I worried that in our family three of us would be taking care Will, that is far from the case, many times, especially in the last few years, Will has been the glue that holds our family together, much of that due to the life skills, ethics, practical skills, compassion, and morality that Stewart has reinforced in him.
So Will’s is the story of a young man who has limitless potential and was given every opportunity while he lived at home; a young man that took advantage of those opportunities, maxed them out, until we could no longer provide what he needed. He then moved on to Stewart, which is everything I could have hoped for and he has become the man he is today. Love you Will and thank you Stewart Home School.
Stewart Home & School is a residential school for people of all ages with special needs. The mission of Stewart Home & School is the complete and total care of its students and the fulfillment of all their needs – physical, educational, social, vocational and spiritual. The faculty of the school program has experience with the learning styles of people with Autism, Down’s syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, and Williams syndrome, as well as other intellectual disability diagnoses. It is the objective of the school program to create successful learning experiences for all students and to consistently reinforce the students’ enthusiastic motivation for participation and further growth. There are high expectations for each individual and it is a joy to see successes celebrated each day!