by Peg Grafwallner, M.Ed.
On Thursday, September 15, I had the privilege of speaking at the Best Buddies breakfast at the Pfister Hotel. This presentation gave the audience the opportunity to learn more about this important organization and also learn more about my daughter, Ani, and her capabilities and successes.
I share my speech with you as a way to show the various organizations that were a vital part of Ani’s life and how our reliance on them helped us to network with even more groups.
As you search for resources for your child, remember to network wherever you can and whenever you can. Keep asking questions and keep advocating. You are your child’s best ally!
I am thrilled to be here and be a part of this wonderful opportunity.
I want to introduce you to my daughter, Ani. Ani is a vivacious, warm-spirited young woman. She is also autistic and intellectually disabled. Before we go on, I want to define autism. According to the National Autism Center, “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in social interactions and social communication and by restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior.” If you ask Ani what autism is, she’ll tell you she gets confused.
I brought Ani home from a Bulgarian orphanage when she was five years, 11 months. She weighed 23 pounds. Her body had a soft, down-like “fur.” Apparently, the body tries to keep itself warm when it’s starving.
She had never learned to chew. I didn’t even know you had to teach a child to chew. Well, you do. She had never learned to sip. She didn’t know how to use a straw. I didn’t know you had to teach a child how to suck through a sippy cup or a straw. But, you do.
She had never taken a bath or had her hair washed. She had never brushed her teeth. Her gums were actually growing over her baby teeth.
She had never been comforted, rocked or held. Instead, she learned to soothe and comfort herself.
She didn’t know Bulgarian, but “spoke” infantile babble because no one had bothered to talk to her.
Those were some dark days for our family. We didn’t know what to do and who to turn to for help. Thankfully, we were directed to a doctor who diagnosed Ani accurately along with some experts in the field of autism. Through years of intense autism therapy, teacher supports, parent recommendations and plain old day-to-day hard work, Ani blossomed into a smiling young woman with a determined spirit.
The best advice we received about how to help Ani adjust into our community was to very simply give her every possible experience. And we did. She became a fixture in Brown Deer. We took her everywhere – from the bank to the grocery store to the gas station to the liquor store. We signed her up for everything our rec department had to offer: dance lessons, swim lessons, summer playground.
As she entered her freshman year of high school, she joined the track team and the swim team. I was excited for her to be part of a group and to learn how to make friends. “Friendships” in the sense that we understand them, have always eluded Ani. More than anything I wanted her to get phone calls from friends, go shopping at the mall, hang out at a restaurant – you know, the stuff teenagers do!
I had heard of Best Buddies from other parents. I knew I wanted her to be a part of this vital group. Ani joined the BB program as a freshman at Brown Deer High School. I met Chelsea who asked me to write a story for the BB Wisconsin newsletter sharing my hope for Ani and her involvement in the BB program. Chelsea asked Ani to be the Buddy Ambassador knowing that Ani would have four years of Best Buddies opportunities.
Truthfully, our Best Buddies high school experience was not as positive as I would have liked it to be. While Ani had a ‘buddy,’ she didn’t get phone calls from her buddy or social invitations. High school students, as you know, are extremely busy. It takes a very determine group to sustain a high school chapter. While Ani attended the BB meetings at school and the after school parties put on by the high school students, I was looking for something more for her.
I shared my concern with Chelsea who immediately went into action. Even though Ani didn’t have the Best Buddies high school experience I wanted for her, Chelsea made sure Ani was an integral part of everything Best Buddies had to offer: Ani attended Leadership meetings at Manpower becoming a trained BB Ambassador; she learned to write speeches and give speeches, building her confidence and social poise.
She has gone to several Best Buddies International Conferences in Indiana always coming home with a phone full of photos and more stories to tell; she’s walked in numerous Friendship walks, even speaking at the kick-off walk at Kapco Park in 2011; she’s sold raffle tickets at the Eggers golf outings; and she has spoken to many Best Buddy audiences promoting the program, sharing her story and her desire for inclusion. We are eternally grateful for all of these wonderful opportunities.
Ani is an inspirational, intelligent and involved young woman who has become a local “celebrity.” There has been a regional magazine article about her. She does cooking demonstrations for a disability resource organization, and is a star athlete involved with Special Olympics. Today, Ani is a lab assistant at Children’s Hospital. She works 16.5 hours a week helping the chemists do their job.
Her sincere personality and honest disposition are genuine and true. She is no longer the “little orphan” that I brought home from Bulgaria 15 years ago; on the contrary, she is a mover and shaker who continues to surprise us and those around her on a daily basis.
She is currently a member of the Concordia University Best Buddies chapter and we have taken full advantage of what “college” life has to offer her: she has attended Brewer games, dances, dinners and Ani’s college buddy, Carli even though she moved to Illinois over the summer, continues to talk with Ani by phone once a week. We are excited for Ani to continue in this program and met her new Buddy this fall.
As I mentioned earlier, Ani is a lab assistant having gone through the Project Search program sponsored by Easter Seals. Successfully navigating the interview process and learning how to speak in front of a group is a direct result of the training Ani received through the BB Leadership opportunities. Remember, it takes a village to raise a child and in our case, it wasn’t only a village, it was an entire Best Buddies community!
When I look at where we were and where we are and where we hope to go, it is truly miraculous and Best Buddies has been an essential part of our journey. Without them, we know Ani would not be where she is today.
So, thank you for your attention and your support of Best Buddies. Please think of how my daughter has benefited from Best Buddies and how she will continue to grow as a result of your support.