April 11, 2017 | By Lori J. McClure - Assistant Director
Unsung HeroThere are many times we hear about families who face disabilities. We hear about the child who has some type of “special need” and the parent (s) who are caregivers. It is not very often we hear about the siblings of a child with a disability and the challenges they face.
Sixteen months ago, my son’s friendship journey was documented by the Philadelphia Eagles. They heard of the story of how Liam was diagnosed with an “Autistic Spectrum Disorder” and how he struggled to make connections and friendships until the power of football changed all that for him. Over 225,000 people watched this short film articulating his struggles, connections and resilience he displayed. However, one piece of the story was mentioned but not really noticed.
Liam has a younger sister, Caitlyn. They are exactly 18 months apart, his sister being the younger sibling. I have referred to her many times as my firecracker as her birthday is very close to Independence Day and her personality certainly earns that title.
Probably for as long as Caitlyn can remember, we had specialists at our house, trips being made for the complete focus of her brother, she being picked up by my friends for outings or she would be taken to her grandparents’ house for weeks at a time while I was three states away bringing Liam for long-term therapy sessions. She was also subjected to my emotional rollercoasters as I had to fight for the educational rights of her brother.
At some point she had to start noticing the differences between herself and Liam. She then had to realize the differences between Liam and the rest of the world. For a few years at school she was anonymous as the school district did not have an appropriate placement for Liam within the district and sent him outside the district for school. Then when she was in second grade that all changed and so did much of her world.
Liam was brought into her school, onto her bus and into the spotlight of differences. She witnessed peers bullying her brother so badly she initiated going to the guidance counselor all on her own. As stated in the film, I had no idea there was something going on until her teacher told me Caitlyn was going to the guidance counselor for reasons she did not know, but thought I would want to know. This seven-year-old girl had to face the war between pain created by her loyalty of family against the embarrassment of difference that her brother displayed. Then she had to sustain the fury of the Mama Bear finding out what was happening and the consequences that resulted for the boys who engaged in their mockery. Again, all for a seven-year-old to sustain.
For the past nine years, she had to sustain the burden of being the caregiver when at school, camps, afterschool activities and even church. This was not something she was completely asked to do, but because of who she is, placed responsibility upon herself. She was the protector while battling the feelings of resentment. She did not ask for this. She sees the close family relations of other siblings all around and can only wish she could have that bond. Instead she lives first in the shadow of his differences and then in the shadow of the spotlight of all his accomplishments and the inspiration he has given to so many people.
Although Liam’s accomplishments, by God’s grace are amazing and inspiring, the woman Caitlyn is becoming is just as much amazing and inspiring. This young woman, despite having a brother with disabilities and experiencing a broken home, she is conquering life’s challenges with grace, beauty, and perseverance. She has a sensitive heart, a giving soul and a determined spirit that will not quit and will help her reach her own goals and dreams.
There is a group of young men who I considered “my heroes” due to their involvement in my son’s life. However, the biggest unsung hero in this journey has been my daughter. A young woman who, as she continues to face what life deals her, will change this world and inspire many. I have been given two gems, and I am humbled to be given the gift to be their mom. Here’s to you my unsung hero, a woman who is already so much more than I will ever be. I love you always and forever. For those of you who are tuned into the families around you who face disabilities, please remember the siblings. Love on them, cherish them, encourage them; for their lives are also impacted for better or for worse. Their need for understanding support is just as strong as the rest of the family. Never overlook the unsung hero.