Our son turns 17 in December. For most boys his age, this would be a time of driving himself and friends, wanting a car of his own, preparing for college…getting ready to spread his wings. For my son, things are a little different, even without this Covid mess. He has 15 hours of therapy a week to teach him skills most of us just take for granted and picked up without much thought. How many times can you tell a joke and it still be funny? How can you tell you’re making someone uncomfortable because you’re standing too close? Why isn’t it ok to kick a teacher out of a zoom session if their microphone is giving awful feedback? From basic hygiene to getting assignments in on time, he needs a lot of support. We can’t leave him alone at home unsupervised, let alone hand him our car keys.
One of the hardest parts of having a family member with special needs is how lonely it can be. There have been years I felt like no one understood, that there was no one I could talk to about our reality. I posted pictures of our lives together and when people would ask me how we were doing, I’d just say, “fine.” We’d avoid social situations because we knew the loud noises or unpredictability were a recipe for disaster. We’d politely decline invitations for play dates because we already knew the normal noise level of a healthy, playful group of kids would just be too much for him. His sister, too, missed out on a lot of things because of the time and energy that we needed to give to him.
Most stories you read about families with special needs quickly gloss over the daily struggles and focus on the positive, even framing their child’s disabilities as a gift. That might resonate for some people, but it doesn’t for me. Of course there are lessons in my son’s conditions and I love him, but I’d also take these problems away from him in a heartbeat. I don’t feel “special” because so many things are so much harder for him and I don’t feel my life is fuller than it would be if he was neurotypical. This is just our struggle and we fight alongside him every day.
And that’s where Friendship Circle of Wisconsin comes in and why I’m running to raise money for them.
Friendship Circle helps where other services leave off. They provide social opportunities for families, from art nights, to play groups, to even dance parties that allow kids to wear headphones and control the sound level of the music. In everything they do, they provide a safe, inclusive environment where families like mine can socialize without the usual stresses. A place where even those who are different can feel normal and make friends. A place where everyone belongs and parents don’t need to stress before bringing their child out, no matter what needs they have. I so wish we’d had something like Friendship Circle when my son was younger and we had to navigate so many holidays that became unhappy times. Friendship Circle has events around holidays to make special times for families like ours and events year round.
For parents, there are groups. I’m part of a Whatsapp group of mothers and in that group we celebrate the successes that no one else might understand, those things that other Moms might just take for granted. We also hold each other when bad days happen. We understand that it’s ok to be frustrated, stressed out, impatient. It doesn’t mean we don’t love our kids. It’s ok to drop the facade there and we don’t have to always be strong or positive. That group and its events are like a warm hug and a pep talk.
For teens, for adults with special needs, Friendship Circle is there. They have job training in their bakery with people who understand special needs. Every single day, they’re giving to the community, trying to make the wider community more inclusive and accepting and reaching out to other groups to educate them about special needs. Their bakery and cafe and art center are a community center that is centered around the special needs community rather than leaving them on the edges.
It really is something special.
Even when I can’t participate as much as I’d like and my family can’t make it out to every thing, I want to do what I can to support this effort because I know first hand that pain of feeling left out, feeling different and alone and not knowing where I could take my son where he could just be…himself. I want all families in my community to have Friendship Circle as a resource to turn to and for them to be able to continue to expand their work.
I can’t do much, but I can lace up my shoes and devote my miles to Friendship Circle. You can help by making a pledge per mile, just for my races. I don’t think anyone wants to pledge for all my training miles for those races! I’m starting running races at the end of this November and I’ll be running 5ks through the Spring, Summer, and Fall of next year, then my dream of a half marathon next Spring in 2022. Your pledge of pennies or dollars per mile or a flat pledge all goes directly to Friendship Circle and helps keep up my motivation to keep lacing up my shoes and getting out there.