October 17, 2011

Colby's Gold

As I write this, I’m reliving an emotional rollercoaster ride I went on, on Saturday and remembering how a single event totally changed my life and my view of life, forever. My emotional meter ranged from extreme guilt, to joy and to sadness all in the course of three short hours. I laughed, I cried and searched my mind for answers to why I was so overtaken with heart wracking emotion.  After the morning was over, I felt as if I had been on a ten mile hike, with a twenty pound backpack, with no water, in the blazing sun. I was completely spent. But in the end, it was one of the most rewarding moments in my life and worth every emotion I went through. The source of that emotion was the Annual Tarrant County Downs Syndrome Buddy Walk at the University of Texas, Arlington. My wife Terri and I were there to support Colby Bannister, a new friend of the family on Saturday, October 15th.

We know Colby and his amazing family from my wife’s pageant and community service work. Randall and Rhonda Bannister seem to me, to be a new millennium Ozzie and Harriet, the perfect couple, a tall and handsome husband and wife. They are the quintessential pair that other’s strive to be. Malyn Bannister, Colby’s younger sister is the type of young lady that any mother and father would be ecstatic about should their son bring someone like her home to meet them. She’s tall, statuesque and strikingly beautiful. She’s smart, sensitive, talented and driven and just the kind of young lady I’d consider adopting, should the chance lend itself. I guess if the truth be told, I already have in my own way.

The bond between Colby and his sister Malyn is one of awe, wonder and inspiration. The love they share is so evident and one that you just can’t put into words. I don’t know if the word that describes their bond has been coined yet. Colby and Malyn are inseparable.

When we arrived at the campus the Bannister family met us at the signup area and led us over to their display booth while we waited for the event to begin. The entire way over, Colby and Malyn were hand in hand, laughing, joking and hugging. They stood by each other at the booth and many times during the day, they exchanged hugs and brotherly and sisterly gazes that only brothers and sisters understand. I can honestly say I don’t know of another sibling relationship that deep and connected.

Last year, my wife attended a Special Olympics event that was here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and she asked if I’d like to go. It was a very rare Saturday that I would have free to just sit around and “recharge”, so I jumped at the chance to stay home and relax, so I told her to go and have a great time. I don’t regret many things in my life, because I believe regrets can hold you back and cloud your walk through life. But one of the regrets I have after attending this weekend’s festivities is not attending the Special Olympics event last year and similar events I’ve missed over the years. I won’t miss another if possible.

Yes, my friends, Colby Bannister has Down’s Syndrome. But he doesn’t seem to know. He’s very outgoing and friendly and has a great hunger for life. But to look at Colby, to watch him, to spend time with him and just soak in his greatness, after a while you look right past the obvious signs of his Down’s Syndrome and at the man that he truly is. He loves to sing and dance and compete in sporting events. And one other thing, Colby is a World Champion Olympian. Yes, you read right, your eyes aren’t deceiving you.

Colby went to Greece (yes, Greece) last year to compete in the Special Olympics and “came home with the gold”. He won the gold medal in the High Bar event and also won two silvers and a bronze in other events. One might think that it wouldn’t be hard to win a medal in an event like the Special Olympics. But in the immortal words of Bart Simpson, “au contraire mon fraire!”, the Special Olympics ain’t no cake walk. Remember, this was the Special Olympics Competition held in Greece… the country where the event began centuries and centuries ago? Special needs people from the entire planet were competing. Colby went up against competitors from countries all over the world and was a world class competitor and winner.

Special needs folks don’t have the strength and endurance that “normal” people have, but their spirit of competition and winning is just as big and some would argue, bigger. You won’t see anyone at this event breaking the world record for the discus toss, the javelin throw or the 100 meter dash. But what you will see is the raw, driven hunger to win for no other reason than for winning and competing. How many Olympic competitors do you know that would pass up the huge endorsements just for the sake of competition and winning?

Before the walk began, there were awards given out, pictures taken and a great visit by all. I milled around the crowd and took dozens of pictures of some of the people that have forever changed my life. There was the young teen girl that was chosen Homecoming Queen, and another that was a pageant winner and a young man that is a full-time coach on a high school football team. There was a young teenage girl in the middle of the field, dancing away by herself to the popular song “All The Singles Ladies”. But she wasn’t alone long, because in one of the classiest gestures I’ve ever witnessed, an entire squad of young prep school cheerleaders joined her in the middle of field and asked “do you mind if we dance with you?” They pushed aside any concern of ridicule, embarrassment or teasing that might be brought on by friends to make a total stranger feel happy and wanted, if just for a few minutes. They all were soon moving and shaking as one, to that catchy tune in the middle of that field, without a care in the world. I missed part of the dance, because I had to step behind a dumpster for a minute or so to remove the piece of grass or dirt that had obviously gotten in my eye...

After the pre-walk ceremonies concluded, we stood at Colby’s booth and along with his sister, friends and parent’s, we gave out information about the Special Needs Pageant that Malyn has organized for local children with disabilities and special needs. The green, yellow, pink, blue and orange “glow stick bracelets” that we handed out were a huge hit. The look in those young children’s eyes when they received their bracelet can’t be described. It’s one of those things where, “you’d just have to have been there”.

Finally the time had come for the walk to begin. I believe at last count, there were over 2,000 souls waiting to walk. Groups moved in behind one another as the crowd gathered. The air was filled with electricity and excited voices on this cool, Saturday morning. Children laughed and danced in place to the music. Colby, being one of the walks “superstars” was asked to lead the walk with several of his other “superstar” friends. He proudly displayed his Olympic medals around his neck he had won the year before at the competition in Greece and was more than gracious to anyone that wanted to see and touch them. We were so honored to be asked to walk in front supporting Colby and all of the other children that led the walk.

The walk finally started and off we went. We wound in, out, around and through the University of Texas at Arlington campus. All along the walk photographs of children with Downs Syndrome were prominently displayed right along the route. Fascinating facts about Downs Syndrome were posted beside them. One I recall is that “Over 400,000 persons in America have Down’s Syndrome”. And another read, “The life expectancy for someone with Downs Syndrome has risen from the age of 25 to 50 and beyond since the 1980’s”. There were dozens of fascinating facts posted along the walk and I read each and every one in amazement and joy.

In about twenty minutes, the walk was over. Short, but brisk. People broke up into their groups, grabbed an icy beverage and some food and walked around, lazily visiting the other booths. We went back to the Bannister Family booth and continued handing out bracelets and information for another hour or so. The event was winding down, so Terri and I made our way around the booth saying our goodbyes while hugging and thanking the Bannister’s for allowing us to be a part of this special event with Colby and the rest of the family.

It’s Monday now, the weekend is gone and another work day has begun. But I can’t help but continue reliving the experience I was blessed to attend this weekend with so many new friends. The emotion of that day is still here inside, on the surface and raw, having rode out the entire weekend without leaving. I’ve never, ever in my life thought less of people with disabilities before this weekend, but my awareness of these wonderful babies, children and adults has been raised to new heights and forever changed.  I wondered to myself “What is it that makes it seem like people with Downs Syndrome are just different, in a good way and that they just “get it?”. I finally came to the conclusion these wonderful souls live each day as if it were their last and God doesn't allow the darkness of this world to pollute their wonderful personalities. No one there had an attitude of “feel sorry for me”. It was refreshing and spiritual for me. I truly saw God in the faces of those wonderful children and His presence all around me that morning.

The last thought that crossed my mind as we left the event was one of recollection and joy and I shared it with Terri. I have come to the conclusion that God knows exactly what He’s doing, everyday, all day and throughout time, because after Saturday it came to me, He only made a few perfect people in this world and the rest of us, He made “normal”.

Colby "gittin' down"

Colby and his sister, Malyn with a gorgeous baby

The Homecoming Queen

The young girl and the cheerleaders

Malyn and the beauty queen

Malyn and two baby queens

Terri, Malyn and me...

The Impulsive Texan

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