This is one of the blogs that I hope reaches more than just my mom friends. I hope so many people will take these words and let them sink deep into their souls and let them fester there for awhile. Let these words stir up everything you thought you knew about inclusion. Let these words inspire you in the best way possible, because that is exactly what they did for me.
My girlfriend Kerri had texted me on a Wednesday afternoon asking if Id like an extra ticket she had to a Best Buddies Jacksonville event. Immediately I said “yes” because I myself being new to the down syndrome community am always so eager to immerse myself into every function possible. I didn’t know much about the event but a quick Facebook search gave me the run down.
Best Buddies Jacksonville, Casino night of champions 2016. Champion of the Year is an annual 8-week fundraising competition organized by the Best Buddies staff, Event Committee, and Advisory Board, featuring a select group of individuals, professionals, and community leaders from the North Florida area. These philanthropic trailblazers compete to raise the most funds for Best Buddies Jacksonville and earn the title of Champion of the Year.
Easy enough. So after work on Friday night I rush home for a quick shower, a makeup overhaul and an outfit change. The event was being held at TPC in Ponte Vedra so I knew me and the hubbs had to show up looking extra fly. Ella was still sleeping in her car seat after her ride home from grandmas so we did what all logical thinking parents do… we left her in there and loaded her back in the car for an hour long drive up scenic A1A. We made the mistake of trying to go over the bridge of lions at 6:00 on a Friday night and quickly regretted everything about that decision as were sitting in bumper to bumper traffic with no where to go. So we inched our way out and turned around back towards US1. TAKE TWO!
By now my child is waking up in her car seat, and screaming. So I kick off my heels and climb over the front seat into the back. I break open my cooler of bottles and baby food and start shoveling avocado into her mouth in hopes she will stop screaming about being confined to her car seat. After a few bites she settles and is back to her happy little cherub self. At 7:15 (the event started at 7:00) we are sitting in a Winn Dixie parking lot in Ponte Vedra beach swapping diaper bags and toys into my sisters car so she can watch Ella for a few hours. In the midst of our drop off she asked if I was wearing a waist cincher (which I was not) and right then I knew it was going to be a good night. Holla.
As we finally make our way into the TPC club house around 7:30 im greeted by dozens of large round tables with chivari chairs and beautiful linens draped across them. There’s purple and blue uplighting filling the walls with dazzling colors, dozens of servers passing huge trays of Hors d’oeuvres and my personal favorite a cover band playing a rendition of R. Kelly’s Ignition. “Toot Toot!” As I walk in bright eyed and ready to play Im immediately glad I decided to wear my heels and skip the flats. This was faaaaaaaancy!
We sign in… were given our table number, an auction number for bidding, some literature on the event and a couple of drink vouchers. Can you say open bar? We make our way through the sea of tables to find our friends mingling at #4. After a few trips up to the food carts an MC comes on stage to introduce himself and welcome everyone to the event. After he gives everyone a run down on how the nights events will go, he introduces “The Champions” these are the people who worked so hard to pound the pavement in hopes of raising the most money for Best Buddies Jacksonville. After the introductions commence were told to get up, hit the silent auction tables and of course start gambling! You want me to spend money? You dont have to tell me twice. I made my way straight to the bar, took a couple pictures in the photo booth and did a lap around the auction tables. After placing a few bids I worked my way over to the casino room and found my husband bellied up to the black jack table. He played a few hands and I cheered him on before he quickly lost all of our chips and that was that. Back to the bar we went!
About an hour and a half into the event we are all called back into the formal seating area and asked to join our tables. This is where I quickly decided whom the real “Champions” of the night were. Kerri’s daughter Paris and her “buddy” Melodi were asked to speak at tonight’s event. Paris and Melodi are both Juniors at Pedro Menendez High School and met through Pedro’s Best Buddies club. Before they make their way on to the stage to speak this video is played to introduce them.
Already fighting back tears Paris & Melodi jump on to the stage to give the most beautiful heart felt speech. They introduce themselves and go on to talk about how they met in gym class for the first time. Neither of them had any clue what Best Buddies was until they got in to high school and realized many of their friends were apart of the club. Paris describes how she felt the first time she went to a Best Buddies event and says she was so nervous that the other students wouldn’t be accepting of her and she feared they wouldn’t like her. Melodi is quick to chime in with “But we did like you paris! I liked you because when I would sit alone at lunch, you would come sit with me and it was nice to have someone to talk to and hang out with.” Have you ever seen a grown man ugly cry in public? Because it happened. Vince full on ugly cried when Melodi mentioned that she would sit alone at lunch sometimes. His contagious heaves quickly made their way over to me and we both held hands and cried while listening to these two play out a friendship we hope will mirror Ella’s one day.
After getting to know each other in their Best Buddies club Paris and Melodi became “Offical Buddies” and in Melodi’s own words “since then they have been best friends forever and one of their favorite things to do is to go get Rita’s Italian Ice together.” Paris chimes in that one of her favorite things to do together is their High Schools “Sparkle” cheer team. This is a cheerleading team designed for individuals with special needs. They pair a member of the sparkle team up with one of the girls from the JV or Varsity team to cheer along side them during games and events. Melodi then reveals that their families have become so close that she even went to homecoming with Paris’s brother, Trevor. (AHHH I LOVE IT!) and that Paris is going to be a bridesmaid alongside her in her moms wedding next year. They closed out their speech by thanking everyone for supporting their local best buddies programs and for supporting friendships like theirs. They quickly let it be known that friendships like theirs wouldn’t be possible without the support from donors like “ourselves.”
GET OUT THE CREDIT CARD VINCE!
After their speech I give myself a once over in my phones front camera and couldn’t be more thankful for the dim lighting. My mascara is smeared around my eyes and there is now neon white lines streaking down my face and neck from where my tears have taken the recently applied sunless tanner with them. We now start a round of whats called “from the heart bidding” you don’t win anything, there’s no grand prize to be had, you simply bid with the knowledge that you are supporting amazing friendships like Paris & Melodi’s. Paddle numbers arent quick to make their way up because the auctioneer started the bidding at about 10 g’s and as much as I would love to say I threw 10 grand down at a best buddies event… well, im just a hair dresser. Moving on. As the numbers slowly start to come down to $5000, $2500, $1000 paddles gradually make their way in to the air and whistles start blowing alerting the auctioneer of a new bid. After about $15,000 being raised the auctioneer pauses and says “So I wanna play a little game” this last round of bidding is called “The last bid” basically its all in $100 increments but you have to be the last one to make a $100 bid. The last person to make that $100 bid will win a 2 night stay at the Amelia Island, Omni Resort. Hot damn. Genius!
Paddles and numbers immediately start flying into the air. The auctioneer is calling out number after number after number. After about 10 minutes of continuous $100 bids and whistles blowing they quickly met their goal of $40,000 and they closed the bidding to one lucky SOB at a table in the back. $40,000 may seem like a random number but their goal was to be able to open 4 Best Buddies “Post High School” chapters. Because unfortunately most Best Buddies clubs are only offered through the high school level. That means once an individual has graduated and moved on from high school they are most likely back to sitting alone at lunch again and hoping someone calls and wants to hang out. It costs $10,000 to open just one Best Buddies chapter and my heart skipped a beat when they said they would be able to open 4 just based off of tonight’s auction.
Once the auction was through we did one more lap around the casino and I redeemed my final drink voucher. I stopped at a table to spill my heart out to Paris and tell her how inspired I am by what shes doing. How she is single handedly giving hope and inspiration to not only her buddies, but to their parents. Choking back tears I told her how proud I was of her and how I pray so hard that Ella has people like Paris in her life.
So this is my message. To moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, I don’t care who you are. If you have a child in your life… expose them to diversity. Let them know everyone is different. Let them know everyone is unique. Let them know that just because they don’t understand something doesn’t make it wrong. Let them ask questions, have an open and honest conversation. Don’t shelter your children from people who are considered “different.” Encourage friendships. Encourage school programs like Best Buddies. I wish programs like this existed when I was a teenager because it would have exposed me to this community of individuals much sooner. We have the opportunity to teach our children how to be compassionate, caring, and inspirational human beings. Anyone can teach their kid how to be an asshole. It takes a special and truly amazing parent to immerse their child into a culture they aren’t familiar with.
People make comments some times that maybe I post too much of and about Ella. But this is my goal. I want to spread awareness. I want people to see that she hits every milestone shes supposed to, it may just take a little longer. I want everyone to know that she smiles and talks and is happy and sad just like every other 7 month old on the planet. I want to be her mouth piece. I want to share her journey so that people aren’t afraid to ask questions. I thrive to have an open and honest conversation with people about Down Syndrome. Because if I’m not comfortable talking about it, then how could I expect someone else to be?
I pray every night that my words transpire with parents and that parents seek compassion to pass along to their own children. As a mom all I want is for my daughter to feel love and acceptance. Because in the end that’s all any human being wants.
Just remember that one day my daughter or even your child may be in Melodi’s shoes and your or someone else’s kid has the potential to be a Paris and show her true kindness and friendship by simply sitting at a table with her and having a conversation.
Teach your kids love, teach your kids acceptance. We have enough bullies in this world, we need more warriors.