I was 13 years old the summer I met Mollie.
She changed my life.
I had no idea that when my parents pulled the brown Mercury Zephyr station wagon into the parking lot at the campground that I had a divine appointment. I didn’t even know what a divine appointment or a date with karma was back then.
I knew that the picnic we were attending would have no shortage of kids, and several cute boys as well. I had chosen my outfit carefully and fussed over my hair and no doubt lamented the presence of my braces before walking out the door.
I was familiar with some of the families, and was looking especially forward to seeing Erick Shawnhoff. I had a huge crush on him. I knew some of the girls, and a few of them could be counted on to not be catty. Many of us saw each other on a regular basis when our parents would get together to have dinner or there was some other retreat function where you could bring your family. As we drove up, I could see the kids my age playing beach volleyball. I was never very athletically inclined, but I got my courage up and started walking over to the sand court.
That’s when I saw her.
She was very small, very pretty, and she was walking with the assistance of the smallest walker I had ever seen. I squatted down to talk to her, and learned that her name was Mollie. Her parents told me that she had a condition called Spina Bifida. I am sure I didn’t know what that meant, and I didn’t ask, but I understood that she had some challenges with walking.
I asked her parents if I could play with her, and they readily agreed, so we started walking around the sidewalks and talking. (Oh for the days and times when you could just give your toddler to a young teenager and walk away, confident that she would take good care of your child because you simply knew her parents!)
Mollie was probably just 3 feet tall, she was wearing a flowered dress. Her hair was in pigtails, and it was a honey blonde color. She had green eyes and a beautiful smile.
I couldn’t tell you what we talked about, I was just captivated by her. I was intrigued with her skill, and was drawn to her by her personality. We went all over the place that day. Mostly walking, we exploring the campground and the playground. I offered help occasionally when it seemed like she really needed it to get over top or onto something. She usually said she could do it herself, and if she couldn’t she politely said “thanks” and had no frustration over not being able to do something herself. She was the most tenacious, most positive, hardest working little girl I had ever seen
I got into the station wagon hours later with my family and took a moment to think about my day. My parents asked if I’d had a good time, and I remember telling them yes. But I had been so captivated that I never even thought about the potential friends or the cute boys at the picnic. I had no idea what anyone was doing, because of Mollie. They listened to me recount my day, and were glad to know that I enjoyed spending it her, but they didn’t know the real impact she’d had on me.
I decided that afternoon that when I grew up, I wanted to work with children with disabilities, challenges, and special needs. I volunteered in the summers after that to work with our city’s Park District Program with special needs kids. We had morning day camp twice a week, and we went swimming twice a week. I met some wonderful kids, and made some great friends while I was involved in the Park District. I went on to major in Special Education and Psychology at Illinois State University, and out of my 4 children, two have special needs.
You just never know when you will find your calling in life. I explored some other ideas about what I might like to be when I grew up during high school and in college, but working with special needs kids always came out in front. I lost track of Mollie pretty soon after that picnic, but she made a permanent impression on me. My path in life and my heart toward those with special needs would never be the same.
Some questions for the comment section!
- What was your first experience like meeting someone with special needs?
- Did you grow up in a family with someone with special needs?
- Did your parents tell you to not talk about it if you had a sibling or cousin or uncle with a disability?
- Was your first encounter a “we don’t talk about these things” moment? As a result, did you have questions that went unanswered?
- Do you think that experience shape the way you relate to those with special needs today?