My oldest brother, Tom, has an autistic son as well as a daughter with Down syndrome. With such a special nephew and niece, I feel strongly about creating a greater awareness of the beauty of these kids and encouraging even greater attendance on our annual father-daughter mission trip to St. Michael’s Special School in New Orleans.
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Last year, one of the dads of a special needs daughter shared a heart-felt testimony that continues to ring in my ears and in my heart. He said, “When my daughter was born, the doctors pulled me aside and told me about her condition. My first thought was anger and resentment toward God. Why me?
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Why can’t she be normal like any other girl? But then I started to see the incredible gift of having a Down syndrome daughter. She has brought so much joy and love to our family and I have learned so many valuable life lessons from her along the way.
In fact, if God came down right now and asked if I wanted to have my daughter be brought back to normal, I would say, “God, leave her alone, she is perfect just the way she is.”
At that moment, the daughter stood up and gave her dad a kiss saying, “I love you, Daddy!”
The dad choked up and could no longer talk, and the room was filled with a lot of teary-eyed dads and daughters.
Matt McCormick and his daughter, Megan, have gone on this trip for the past 4 years and they shared this testimony with me.
From dad Matt McCormick:
This is my fourth year going to New Orleans with Fr. Michael Sliney and Fr. Jacobo Munoz, and each year it seems to get better. St. Michael’s has about 210 children and adults who are going to school or working at the “Joy Center.” Our time is spent doing projects around the school, working in classrooms with the children and playing with them at recess; kickball is my favorite activity. The students are an absolute joy, so happy to see you and so excited about their school. All of our daughters on the trip are touched by the students’ purity of heart and the teachers’ commitment to them.
The students this year helped us further the mission by bringing in food contributions, which we distributed to a local shelter and directly to some of New Orleans homeless population. On the final afternoon, we also have the opportunity to meet some of the parents of the children, who prepare a traditional New Orleans dish of red beans and rice for us.
The parents shared with us the disguised blessing of raising a special needs child and we heard that they would never trade this opportunity for a “normal child.” We then shared in a Saturday afternoon Mass with the students and their parents, which is very special.
From daughter Megan McCormick (age 16):
The father-daughter service trip to New Orleans is something very special in my life and is something I look forward to every year. I’ve been going for 4 years now and every year it becomes better. This year the service trip fell on an unfortunate weekend for me: It was the weekend right before my grading quarter ended and I had a lot of work to do. I was so nervous about missing school that I was beginning to stress about going to New Orleans at all. My stress and anxiety vanished when I arrived at St. Michael’s Special School on Friday morning.
When I saw all the happy faces of the students in the auditorium, I was reminded it was important I was there. The students are the sole reason we fly down to New Orleans each year. Their love and joy truly radiates off them and makes St. Michael’s such a special place. In a way they refresh me, in my faith and my general happiness to be alive. They reminded me to be grateful for everything in life, and just be happy.
I had previously mentioned that the trip fell on an unfortunate weekend, but by the end I realized it fell on the perfect weekend. In a society that focuses so much on human perfection, appearance and achievement, we need to value the “disguised” beauty and perfection of the special needs community.
They offer so much to our society and they are so loved by God.
Fr. Michael Sliney, LC, is a Catholic priest who is the New York chaplain of the Lumen Institute, an association of business and cultural leaders.