Wednesday, December 4, 2013

And there you are, Ana.

I feel like I have to stand back and just look at you, Ana, my dear.  In my heart, you are still this little girl, captivated by fairies, climbing trees and misspeaking in the most endearing ways.  Your hair hangs in ringlets, and your eyes are wide and full of questions and curiosity.  The cliché lives in me: I blinked and there you grew, almost like the hole in time that's missing from this blog. 

For so many years, you've been called my little twin.  Folks have commented on how similar we look to each other, how similar our temperaments are.  It has been hard from me to separate us, even in my mind.  So often, we respond exactly to life and its surprises, challenges, frustrations.  Too often in your short life, my dear, I have put my own anxieties about life on you.  I am working so hard to undo this, as you are just as you should be, and life is what it is.  Forgive me for seeing you too often as an extension of me.  You are uniquely you, and you are a wonder.

More than any other time in your development, I'm keenly aware of how separate you are from me.  And by separate, I mean individual.  I thought I had dealt with this at many other points in your development, as you've shown your preferences (how can you not like tomatoes?) or grown talents that I couldn't imagine.  I mean, you knit with your fingers.  No needles.  Just fingers.

This year, this big growing year, has taught me so much about you, and WOW, ANA.  You are one strong girl.  Forgive me for sounding surprised, because this is consistent with who you have always been.  You have always possessed a physical strength, strength of character, and strong will.  But this year, you were tested in ways that showed me how you handle adversity, and I have only been able to watch, and figure out when and where to insert guidance, if at all, because in the end, you've been going through it alone.  And I have learned so much from you- you, my little butterbean, have helped me find my own courage.  

Sometimes, you would cry with so much intensity at the changes beyond your control, that I would swallow my words.  I soon learned that this wailing soon gave way to a peaceful calm and resolve.  That it was good to just hold you and be there, and that I couldn't fix it with, "It will get better."  I'm so grateful that you let me try to comfort you, and hold you.  I needed to try to fix it in some way.  It is a privilege to get to hold you, my dear, as you were going through something all alone.  I couldn't make it hurt less or take it away.

Slowly, I've seen you shine in new ways that have surprised you, too.  Harder school work means flexing new muscles, and you're fully equipped.  You've been enjoying hard work, and thinking deeply, as you always have.  And you've enjoyed grades, which are new.   You doubted yourself in these early days, thinking there was some kind of mistake that you were admitted. You kept at it, Ana, and I can see this as a source of confidence once again.  Now, you're getting comfortable, and those grades are slipping a bit.  I couldn't be happier to see you less anxious, and equally eager to learn.  In the end, it all averages out.  You put a great deal of pressure on yourself, my Ana.  But you're already amazing.  Anyone can see. 

Beyond school,  which has dominated so much of this year, there are the most important things.  The "how you look at the world."  It is fascinating hearing you grow, and I'm grateful that you talk to me about so much.  You love Mr. Wray, your science teacher.  One night, you said to me, "Mom, I love science and Mr. Wray.  Sometimes, when he's teaching us, he'll start talking about the problems that happen in the world, and it's things I haven't heard about before.  Life how the fertilizer in people's lawns hurts the animals in the lake.  And then, I can't sleep. I'm so worried about it."  Learning how the world works, or doesn't-- is so overwhelming. It like your big sob of helplessness.  I feel it too, in this crazy world and this violent city.  Your big heart, and your powerful mind are trying to figure these things out, like one of those puzzling math problems that we wrestle through. 

There must be something we can do, right?  You always want to help, and make things better.  Your compassion for others and for animals especially, is a beautiful gift.  And your sense of justice can raise the roof.  On a recent school trip to Barrataria, you described your favorite part: an activity where you stood in a circle with your classmates, each of you touching something that was alive.  And then you were asked to touch elbows with the others in the circle.  You described the electricity between you and your classmates as you could feel the life moving through you.  Your eyes dancing, we could all feel the electricity too.  It's an energy you bring to all of life.  An excitement to learning, connecting, and experiencing.  I know this enthusiasm will lead you on many adventures, and through them, you will find healing for the things that hurt. I know you'll be a problem solver, even if it's to feed one person in need. 

This year, you went to a service knitting fair, and learned about so many nonprofits in the city that do good work.  You marveled at runaways, lead poisoning, veterans of war, and supporting literacy. Who knew there were so many issues, and of course, helpers.  So many helpers.  You've loved knitting for WWII veterans, and next- baby hats.  Love can heal. Even when we aim to help, we end up healed.

Sometimes, you and your brothers wage world wars 3, 4 and 5 over the slightest of slights. I can kind of see your patience growing in this area.  Kind of.  I hope that you grow less ashamed and embarrassed of us all.  We really love you.  And I know you really love us.  After Elliot's recent success in dressing himself, we talked about how hard it must be to get dressed with one arm.  You disappeared into your room, and when you came back, you were wearing new clothes, rolling your eyes.  "Wow, that was really hard."  Last night you had your brothers play a game and earn points that they could spend on knick-knacks in your room.  They were thrilled- Oliver with his dried plant (magic wand) and nest of chicks, and Elliot with his bright pink puppy box filled with shells, and a disco ball necklace.  Very motherly, you touched his shoulder and said, "I'm so proud of you for being Student of The Month, Elliot."  This reprieve from your usual death threats was such a treat.

I wonder how you'll manage all these feelings about yourself and the world, and see creativity and nature as tools that are of great comfort to you.  You love to make things, whether it's sewing or knitting a something, or arranging a collection of leaves and seeds like a beautiful bite from Mother Nature.  You've been taking us all to do "Magic Spots."  Armed with journals, we find our spot behind the levee, and write or draw whatever we feel.  Your vision of the world shapes and changes us, Ana.  You make us think differently.

Being your mama has made my life. You are as much a marvel to me at age 10 as you were that first minute in the hospital, wide-alert eyes, Ana. I look forward to all that we discover together each year that we are blessed together. 

Over these 10 years, you have festooned me with Japanese magnolia petals written with love notes, built fairy houses from sticks and leaves, found "leaf bones" of decomposing fallen leaves.  They've become a part of the earth, separate but inseparable, now.  Much like you and me.   I treasure all of it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Someone read my blog today

My long forgotten words.  In her admission that she'd followed my story from start to it's incomplete finish, a flush came over me- the vulnerability of all I've shared--my deepest loves, heart-breaking pain, and unrelenting frustration.  What a bridge we crossed together- without my knowing it--as I stripped down to my bare bones with the curtains thrown wide. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A ship is safe in the harbor...

We are in the process of renovating our outdated kitchen, and "repurposing" most of the rooms in our house.  With three active children, our small cottage is begging that we either make better use of our space, or put the house on the market.  "Love it, or List it," as they say. 

As if the chaos of living out of boxes, and washing dishes in the bathtub weren't bad enough, I've decided NOW is a great time to reorganize boxes of old photos.  In the process of doing so, I've found these old memories, and wonderful friends, most from nearly 20 years ago, when I was an exchange student in the old town of Nijmegen, Nederland. Picture me now, people, riding through tulips on my maroon bicycle.  Well, sort of...

 It's been interesting trying to answer the usual questions in talking with folks I haven't seen since my early 20's, especially with that storm that happened almost 8 years ago:

What's it like living there? What do you do? I live in an amazing city.  It's vibrant and thriving--beyond the music that provides the backbeat for daily life, the people carry that rhythm, and spread it all around as they see each other.  (Please remove mental images of high waters, poor folks stranded on rooftops, black mold).  I direct a non-profit childcare center called Abeona House.  I have to give them the short and sweet version, because I don't think they want to hear all of this.

What do I really want them to know?  That Abeona House is key in this city of renaissance.    If we educate young children to not only love learning but to value themselves and others, our community will thrive beyond our wildest imaginings. 

It starts at a basic level of service to families and children who are doing good work in our city as educators, policy makers, small business owners.  They come and check us out, and make a rather huge decision: to trust us with what matters more to them than anything in the world. 

                                                                             Yes, Twins.

                     They send us pictures from the hospital when our new charges are born.
                         They even organize alumni playdates- with kids who are now in 4th grade.

After parent-teacher conferences, I get notes like this:

"Thank you so much for your empathy and compassion. We've never experienced that and I grew today. I felt safe and knew that I could let my guard down and really focus on learning how to be a better mother. I am so grateful."--October, 2012
What makes Abeona House so special? In short, it's this philosophy that shapes what we do, that stole me away from "big school," never to return.  Read about it here, but prepare to have your mind blown. Building schools from bombed out buildings? Children are protagonists of their own education and development? It never ceases to inspire me.

Teachers document play, problems, activities.  And it sounds something like this when two-year olds negotiate corks covered with decorations:

"The heart corks are in a group, the orange corks in another, and the glittery corks in the final group. Angus sees the heart corks and grabs one. Lulu once again protests: “NOOOO! I need one more right here!” she says, pointing to the empty space beside the matching cork. Angus scoots the cork back towards Lulu; she replies with a simple 'Thank you.'" 
You'll have to come visit and open a portfolio if you want to know what happens next.
Hundreds of moments captured, building blocks for exploration and research, but it all comes down to everyday acts of love, being present, expressing tenderness and patience, and complete belief in what children can do.

Because Andrew brings his guitar and guides the Ones as they explore with vibration, tension, sound.  And Jessica brings in a wind machine after watching her Twos dropping fallen leaves in the wind.  She documents with photos and stories their images, words, and ideas.  We talk for a couple of weeks about where this can go.

Mallory spends her day crawling behind newly mobile infants.  She and her team ditch the super cushy chair in their room because the kids need more room to explore.  Because it's not uncommon to see Jaime cracking up as a four year-old tells her an exceptionally good anecdote.  Amelia changed her plans to go to school in Lafayette, because she can't leave "her kids."

Katie knows every baby like the back of her hand.  What helps this one sleep, how to get this one to eat, where the best tickle spots are, and how to get a deep belly laugh.  She's like a human baby dictionary.  Maggie started a weekly digest to share her amazing photographs with infant parents.  Because how else could she convey the hundred special moments she gets to capture.  The pictures look like this:
This is Camille. I start each morning in Camille's room.  I get paid to do so.  Don't hate.
Besides loving these kids so intensely, both Audrey and Abby bring earth consciousness to every day.  They have taught the children how to compost uneaten food, and even our brown paper towels.  They are helping shape at these formative years, responsibility, interconnectedness, and love.
Michelle started as a volunteer, and is now a full-time teacher.  We are working with her to chart her future in early childhood education.  Jamilah brings a mother's love and guidance to the Ones.  She's just as proud of their accomplishments and discoveries as with her own child.  And Nicole, well, Nicole can speak for herself. I would like to say for the record, she cannot help but give.  It is in her nature, and it makes sense that this is her work.  She gives to us, and these children, each day.
Aurelea has made it her personal calling to find out what lullaby best puts her twos to sleep.  Can you imagine being serenaded daily?
 And Anna has committed to looping with her kids for the next 3 years.  Talk about dedicated.  Can you imagine the depth of understanding from working with the same group in this stage of development?
Our chef, Sarah Bouley, has been cooking since she's an infant(-:  Her cooking is fresh, local, whole grain goodness.  Since the food program has started, 3 teachers have lost a combined 175 pounds.  Her influence, flavor and incidental education is shaping ALL of our lifestyles.
Aliza is our center director, and enthusiastically guides our staff through the 100 details of daily life. She was an exceptional teacher for us too...(yes, that's Oliver with the luscious long curls). She connects our parents to our program, and makes life feel good around the center.  She says things like, "The teachers need a coffee pot for the holidays."  We all love coffee...and we all love Aliza.
 And here I am, the fearless leader.  My work is guiding this amazing team to make children and learning more visible, and in believing in their unlimited capacity--and by extension, their very own. In the same way we've watched children wobble on unsteady feet, I've been lucky to get to watch these loving and caring adults deepen in their teaching practice, and respect for children.  I've watched them cultivate community in pockets of children, and shine a light on huge developments that we get to experience.  I've watched them grow and learn too.
Our focus is on our capacity, as children, parents and adults.  I love this quote from Grace Hoppern: "A ship in a harbour is safe, but this is not what a ship is built for."
Are we really impacting the world?  I would argue that educating one child has an impact.  However, our work is community focused, from the inside-out. 
Yes, we are a special place.  But it's not good enough for us to be special.  That's because we live in a city where there are lots of needs, and lots of ways that early childhood can look.  And so my work takes me into the community where:
  • We advocate for more reasonable subsidies for low-income families.  We are working closely with state leaders to allow for sliding fee subsidies so centers can afford to serve these families. 
  • We share our unique ways of teaching, researching and documenting with the broader community.  We have shared our work with over 300 educators to date.
  • We are a part of an alliance of exceptional programs to strengthen and share business practices in childcare centers so they can provide a higher quality of care.
  • We are developing our food program to include gardening, family and teacher education, more composting, outreach to other childcare centers, and the greening of our space.  Lifelong foundations for health.
At the end of this month, I will walk in the Crescent City Classic to raise money for this organization I love.  I'm asking for your support of this community resource through a PayPal donation on our website or by mail (3401 Canal Street, NOLA 70119).  $5, $50?  Your tax-deductible gift will support whatever work we touch: quality care for young children, a sincere belief and dedication to teachers, lasting impact on our broader New Orleans Community, sustainable food, and me.  Your donation will touch me, because this is my passion.  Thank you for reading, and for your love and support always.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Closing in on the Finish Line

Dear friends,
It's one week away from the Crescent City Classic and soon, I will be running out there with 20,000 other New Orleanians. Among them, there will be a contingent from Abeona House: children, parents, teachers, and even our chef! We will be sweating and smiling, and hope to bring awareness of our our organization. I'm writing to ask you for your support, as we are also raising money for our scholarship program in conjunction with the race. There is a massive FUND-RACING effort happening among our participants, as we compete to ensure our ability to serve an economically diverse population while providing a liveable wage for early childhood educators.

Since our move in December, 4 short months ago, we've doubled in size, begun accepting childcare subsidies for low-income families, and added a delicious and nutritious farm-to-table food program. It's been wonderfully gratifying to see "my baby" grow up a little, and see our many of our goals come to fruition. We wouldn't have been able to do this without your support, friendship, and belief in our mission.

As a parent, I've personally reaped the benefits of this program. My children have flourished. Yesterday, I had the bittersweet experience of meeting with Oliver's teacher to discuss his progress. While looking over his portfolio, his growth so painstakingly and beautifully documented, we begun to talk about when my preschooler will move on. We stopped for a minute and saw a picture of him talking with his friend Cadence...beneath it this conversation:
O: When we get married and have a baby, you can work and I will feed the baby.
C: I not have a baby. I am busy.
O: I will take care of the baby...OK??
As I flipped through images of Oliver problem-solving and hypothesizing, I could see that his individuality and humanity were of such value. I'm so grateful that he is seen, heard, and nurtured. I wonder what he will choose for himself as an adult, and know that he will know how to love and be loved.
But it's not just about my kid, or the three of them. It's about making children visible. Sharing with the world how inspiration, curiosity, and ideas shape powerful experiences. And honestly, how the values that young children have should be the influences that shape our "adult" world. Kindness. Compromise. Sharing. Caring. Listening. Using our words. INCLUDING all children, regardless of ability. This is what Abeona House is all about.

So I ask you to support this work with a donation of $5-$5,000. With your donation, you become a part of this wonderful work, these values, and our continued success. Donate now through Paypal (, or mail a donation to Abeona House Scholarship Fund, 3401 Canal Street, NOLA 70119, and indicate that you're supporting Emmy in the race.
I'm always grateful for your support, in whatever form it comes. Thank you.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dreams Do Come True (Wasn't that our senior song??)

Well, it finally happened. This last year, something I've been working towards since just after the storm became a reality. I had begun to think it was a dream I would never make true. From our sweet and humble 100 year-old cottage, Abeona House MOVED. This wasn't just a change of was a qualitative change, a move towards our shared goals. And if you're included in this email, it's because I know you care about my children, or my dreams, or our work, and have maybe contributed to any of these. I want to share with you what I've been doing since last September. It's really a dream come true:

*We have a new home at 3401 Canal Street in Mid-City, in a building that has allowed us to bring in 25 new families, bringing us to a total of 55 children served!

*We are a CLASS A center, able to accept children on ChildCare Assistance, including foster children. I can't tell you the richness this diversity has brought us, and I know that our center has been able to bring stability and joy to children whose lives are in flux.

*We have a wonderful farm-to-table food program of fresh, local food. Whole grains, a wide variety of vegetables and fruit, and innovative healthy dishes that build solid foundations for healthy life choices so that our little ones live a long time, and live well. My youngest, Oliver, a tentative eater, is now scarfing down lentil burgers, and asking for frozen mango at home. I know we are creating a model. I'm very proud of our food program and can't wait to add the gardening and composting pieces.

*My role has changed to include more teacher development, community outreach and strategic planning. I now have the support of a center director who manages the staff. I can focus primarily on the development of our organization. We can further our outreach to early childhood programs in the region.

And our work continues, because it's our goal to build our own center that will accommodate the demand for our work, parenting classes, and spaces for local teachers to learn, and dialogue. We aim to raise the quality of life for these teachers, and become a better employer, raising wages, improving benefits, developing teachers toward their dreams and goals.

So yes, I still have dreams to dream for Abeona House. But I know that some things will never change:

*Our work will always be based on profound respect for children.

*We will always work in close concert with our parents to ensure that our children have strong foundations for life.

*We will always be inclusive of children with special needs. My son, Elliot, was our first, and many more have come, and will come, after him.

*Our work will always be open to the community so that we can share our documentation, the development of relationships and the capacity of children with parents, teachers, and supporters.

If you're still reading, its because you want to support this work, or me, because you know this is important to me. I'm asking you to pledge to my run/walk in the Crescent City Classic for Abeona House's Scholarship Fund. I will be in good company, with my husband and 58 other parents, teachers, and community supporters who all understand the importance of this work, of making children visible, and empowering their teachers. This will be my fourth year raising funds this way. Last year, we earned $7000. This year, our goal is $12,000.

Your donation of $5-$500 will go directly to our scholarship fund for CCAP families and financial aid recipients. Please consider going to our website to Donate Now through Paypal:,
or drop a check in the mail to our new location: 3401 Canal Street, New Orleans, LA 70119.

Please indicate your donation is in my name, and do so before April 1 (That's no joke!). All donors will receive a sweet thank you, made with love by my children. It's important to all of us(-:

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Six stories from the week Elliot turns SIX

Just last night, I was holding Elliot in Ms. Georgia's pool, and noticed I had cupped both my hands underneath his head, and was holding him out from my body, just like you'd hold a little baby when you'd want to look deeply into their eyes.  Staring back at me was a little boy, with 20 teeth in a wide, happy smile,  a fresh haircut plastered with pool water, and laughing eyes.  He only let me hold him like that for a brief moment before he said, "Mama.  Let me go.  I want to swim.  Mama, let me go."  I wonder if, all his life, he will be asking me to let him go.

Yesterday, Elliot stood on the deck of the same pool, and put his head down on the side...I thought for a moment he was going to do a dive.  Instead, he let himself roll forward into a tumble.  He had done a tumble set into the pool. Ana shook her head in amazement.  "How did he do that?"

The night before his birthday, we came home from another night of swimming, and passed out in a heap on our bed.  At 2:30 in the morning, Elliot woke up and seemed uncomfortable. After 30 minutes, we discovered that his back and buttocks were covered with hives.  These returned an hour before his birthday dinner the next day.  My mind has been swirling with a sense of impending doom.  I have heard too many stories of late-onset nightmares...You, you party hard, and ask for your presents. 

Elliot returned to the pet store with Kevin to get some other necessities for his birthday turtles, whom he's named Ang and Kitara. He reaches into a pond, pulls out a large turtle who bites him on the chest. He's afraid and hurt. He returns home and gets cleaned up. 10 minutes later, he's asking to hold his turtles.

On Sunday, we are going on a bike ride.  You seems tired and sluggish, and can't get too far.  Ana has zipped forward, and is looking for locusts in Ms. Nancy's crepe mrytle.  We get stuck several houses down.  The neighbors come out with their dog, and the owner proceeds to play fetch with a soppy ball.  Within minutes, you are in charge, whipping the ball out, laughing gleefully as it's returned to you.  Oliver gets off my bike, wanting a slice of the action.  You engage the neighbor, and then her husband, and then their friend in several conversations.  Mr. Kyle drives past and you begin asking him about his new car.  A few minutes later, the neighbors ask if we'd like a big bag of shrimp.  That a friend gave them 60 pounds.  I motion Ana to come back to us, and we begin the trek home with our bag of enormous, dripping shrimp.  We only make it about two houses.  You are really struggling on your bike.  A second later, the neighbor comes by in her fancy dog grooming van,  and asks if she can give your bike a lift home.  You cry as she puts  it in the the van,  and she offers you a lift too.  You climb into the passenger seat, grinning from ear-to-ear, and begin your 20 questions about her amazing ride.

Last night, as you went to sleep next to me, you gently played with my earring.  Your body seemed long, as you stretched out in the bed, your lids kissing your sweet cheek.  Where has the time gone, my love?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Elliot's big announcement

This spring, like most other parents, I set out to find the perfect summer camp for my children.  Ana has attended a popular uptown camp for the last 2 years, and has come from these experiences with a broader understanding of the world, a host of new friends from different schools and backgrounds, and personal growth.  I wanted these same things for Elliot.  Last summer, he was "home with dad," with no camps that we knew of taking children that age who weren't potty-trained.  Despite her love of camp, Ana envied Elliot's "free" summer...I felt we'd failed to continue Elliot's learning, growth and socialization.  I was determined that this year would be different.

Ana's Camp, The J3wish C0mmunity Center, did not feel that his needs could be met there, and in talking with the director, I doubt they will ever dedicate the energy to create a more inclusive camp experience.  If we had endless resources and could afford the hefty camp fees plus a daily personal attendant (which is more than Elliot needs), then he could go anywhere.  But this is not our reality.

From my research, the only option for Elliot was Camp Ra1nbow, run by Jeffers0n Parish, Parks and Recreation, a camp for children with disabilities.  Elliot would be 2 months shy of the age 6 requirement.  I learned through pointed questions, that a birth certificate would be required...but that a strong letter to my councilperson, the city attorney, and supporting documentation for our child's therapist might go a long way.  I got to writing those, and was surprised at the efficiency of the city's response.  By the end of the week, I was informed that Elliot would be allowed to attend the camp.  And while this camp for children with special needs would not assist in the diapering and potty training of my child, "we'd figure something out."  I was so excited, and began talking with Elliot about CAMP!

In the meantime, I learned about a camp being led by a former dance teacher of Elliot's: Kid's Play NOLA.  I contacted the director, Dana Reed, and asked if she felt that Elliot's needs might be met there, and if we would assist in diapering once a day, would they make an accommodation.  She said we'd try it out...

On paper, I think my child scares people, although I believe there are a lot of fears about children with special needs and inclusion because camps simply exclude them, and don't challenge themselves to do more.  And granted, with many of them simply hiring staff a week or so before camp, I don't want them taking any risks with my child or any one elses.  Something about this needs to change...

So our plan for the summer was 2 weeks of Camp Ra1nbow, 2 weeks of Kids Play NOLA, 2 more weeks of Ra1nbow.  There's something to be said about bringing your child to a special needs experience with a wide range of development.  When dropping Elliot off, I could see that some children had severly limited mobility and speech, cognitive awareness, social skills, etc.  We were bringing him to a Jeff Parish playground, so the environment was not prepared for children...concrete walls, banquet tables, etc.  Elliot LOVED seeing the basketball court, and that's where we said "goodbye," and he was quite happy. As Kevin and I walked away, we talked about the staff, and how lackluster and uninterested they seemed, especially for a first day and first meeting of a child.  I had a nagging feeling, but dismissed it...I so often have to talk myself through these new experiences with Elliot (otherwise, I think he'd still be at home!)...

We made our way there for a mid-day diaper change (such a pain that this is an issue), and by the time we picked him up at the end of the day, he seemed happy but ready to go.  After the first two days, it seemed that every time I picked Elliot up from camp, the TV was on...and teachers were on one side of the room,volunteers were playing board games with EACH OTHER, and there was nothing inspiring really happening.  I have nothing against TV, but the times we picked El up varied greatly (1, 1:30, 2, 2:30, 3, 3:30, 4)...always the TV.  One day, he grabbed the remote, and as I told him to put it down, the teacher interjected, "He's probably just pressing the 'Play Again' button."  Yeah.  Probably. 

We'd worked out a payment plan with one of the volunteers to change him ($40/week), so that was easier, but why were we driving him here each day?  In so many ways, this population needs an exceptional staff who can help bridge relationships across abilities, challenge the children's growth, engage them in new ways of feeling and experiencing life...and instead, I felt like I'd dropped my child at an institution, where the world had given up on him and his beautiful friends.  The nagging feeling persisted...Do we bring him back for the last two weeks, and just look at it as daycare?  Kevin's work schedule required 2 early days, but we could make it work.

Well, we tabled the discussion, as Kids Play was starting.  This experience exceeded our expectations for what any camp can do.  Each day, we were greeted by happy counselors, and a collection of children enthusiastically welcoming Elliot.  We could see he was making friends and that the couselors recognized all the things that we love about him.  Elliot would come home talking about yoga, meditation, dance, drumming, and "jumbo, jumbo."  I contacted the director to tell her what an amazing time Elliot was having.  She wrote me a short email: "Elliot did a dance around the room today, and the whole camp cheered him on.  He is a joy, and adds so much to our experience."  I cried.  And read it again.  And cried some more.  Our child was being received in the same way we receive him at home--with great joy for his uniqueness, in celebration of his spirit.  Wow.

We were excited about Kevin's day of volunteering.  What would he learn about Elliot's day?  Kevin volunteered on the second Thursday of the camp.  The stories he came home with were beautiful-At morning meeting, the children gathered in a large room (the camp takes place on Tulane's campus in an arts complex).  Mr. Seguenon, a drum teacher of unknown African origin, led the children in playing a xylophone looking instrument with gourds at the bottom.  He would play a pattern of notes, and invite each child to try and replicate the melody.  Elliot was 5th or 6th in the lineup.  When it was his turn, the whole camp started chanting, "Go, Elliot, Go!  Go Elliot GO!"  Elliot took the stage, and after a few notes, called up a little girl to come help him.  She jumped up enthusiastically, and together they played.  At lunch time, a couple of friends assisted Elliot in opening his containers and those tricky bags of goodies.  At transitions, routines, there was a friend to give a hand...not too much assistance, but just what Elliot needed to stay on task, and do what he had to do. 

At the end of each day, there were children calling out, giving hugs, saying, "See you tomorrow, Elliot."  What was going on here?

Then, there was the Saturday performance.  The children would bring their decorated parasols and self-screened t-shirts to Ashe cultural center where they would participate in a recognition of the Middle Passage as part of a city-wide drumming experience (wow!).  I was nervous to leave Elliot there an hour and a half before the performance.  So much waiting for him.  Would he wander away, as he does so skillfully?  Would he have a diaper?  As performance time grew near, we returned to see, and from downstairs, I saw him try to sneak down the stairs, and then I saw Mr. Seguenon scoop him off the stairs, hold him close, and dance with him around the upstairs...Elliot smiling from ear to ear.  Another time, a group of kids sat on the stairs to block him in.  He eventually gave up and sat behind them.  When they were about to walk down the stairs with their parasols, I nervously imagined him tumbling down the long flight (he couldn't walk down while holding that in one hand!)...and then there was his teacher, holding his hand.  Calm down, Emmy.  They've got him figured out.  (And yes, if it sounds like I could use a vacation, you're right!).

The group second lined and drummed their way on stage, and there they sang, danced, and drummed.  At each bit, there was a child to remind Elliot of the move, help him get the cues, shoo him off the stage...twice, I saw him wander from back stage, and they got him each time.  It was a dramatically different Elliot than we saw at his first kinder-performance during which he simply sat on the stage staring out...quite shocked that there were now lots of people there staring at him.  This time, he worked to do what he was supposed to do, and there were a village of people there to help. 

The kids took a bow, and we thought it was over.  A man made an announcement, and the kids were filing out.  And then, there was Elliot, sneaking away from the group, and he had taken the microphone out of the man's hands. 

"Wait, Everyone.  Wait, Everyone.  You have to listen," Elliot said in a demanding voice, with his mouth too close to the microphone.  Kevin and I were surprised, our recording devices down at our sides.  I could see the man looking confused and trying to make a plan to get his microphone back.  He then made a decision, and picked Elliot up, and put him in the center of the small stage.  "Listen.  Everyone."  The crowd of 250+ grew silent.  "I LOVE YOU.  Thank you for coming."  And with that, he turned the microphone back over, and walked off-stage.

Off course, we sappy parents let the tears that had been threatening all day come, and shook our heads.  What love our son had been given, and what love he had given so freely.  I could see that he had received so much love, guidance and acceptance, but also that the children had been given the opportunity to lead, to encourage, to assist, and like all of us, to admire the tenacity of this little boy who has to work just a little bit harder to do the things we take for granted.  They were as grateful to him, as we were to them.  He had contributed to their wonderful summer.  And Elliot had felt it.  And had to let them know.  He had an amazing experience, and it had shaped him, given him all the things I'd wanted for his summer.

On the way out, there were girl, about 12 years old, saw Elliot taking a picture with a little boy and said, "You get to take a picture with Elliot.  No Fair."  We shooed her into the photo.  Here, he wasn't ignored, bullied, shunned, dismissed...he was really seen for who he is--a highly social, loving friend.  It was so beautiful. 

It goes without saying, we've withdrawn Elliot from the last two weeks of his other camp.  I don't know what we will do, and I don't care.  Hopefully they will refund us some money, but I don't care.  There is no added value with him at that camp.

Here's what worked about his Kids Play experience:
  • Small size.  I imagine there were 40 kids from 5-12 in the camp total.
  • Selective admission--the camp has an admissions process where children have to answer several questions as part of being a part of the camp; they also have to sign a code of conduct.  But these kids were just great kids.  They live that code of conduct each day.  Kevin says, "These are the best kids in the city."
  • Exceptional staff--I can imagine that the attitude of the staff modeled so beautifully how to help Elliot, but not so much.  These are folks who really saw Elliot in totality.
  • Mixed ages--Again, another opportunity for modeling.  Elliot has been in inclusive settings before.  At Abeona House, Elliot was the only child with special needs in the group most of the time.  His peers treated him as they treated the other children.  This is what we saw at the camp, with the added piece of the much older children who would model acceptance and compassion in a very powerful way. 
  • A relationship--it's a good thing we knew Dana from before the camp experience.  I think this is why he was accepted, and why we could also communicate openly about our concerns.
  • It's FREE?  Is that crazy?  Guest artists each day, amazing drums, exceptional staff...I would pay a premium for this, but through funding from a host of foundations (Arts Council, Keller Family Foundation, etc.) it is a free camp.  I have to admit, I wasn't sure this would be a quality experience because we weren't paying for it, but I was SO wrong!
We have NO plan for Elliot for the rest of the summer, but if two weeks of Kids Play is all his summer is--it's just fine with me.

Now for Mommy's challenge-
To parents of typically developing children:  Don't you want your child to have a diverse experience that includes children with disabilities?  Do you see what children like Elliot can add?  Ask your child's camp about their policies relative to children with disabilities, and ask every time.  Tell them you'd like to see more.  YOU drive the market.

To NOLA summer camps: Make a committment to these children.  If you don't have children with special needs in your programs, you aren't serving the community.

To NOLA funders: Demand inclusion of the programs you fund.  There are no choices for parents of children with disabilities, especially if potty-training is an issue.  Small accommodations can be made to give these children a rich, powerful summer full of friends and learning.  They deserve it.