Recollections of My Very Special Brother
by Laurie Vanderpool
Each year during the spring, my mind relives treasured memories of Easters from the past when my family would all get together to celebrate Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection for all people. This year, Easter is especially meaningful to me because March 21, World Down Syndrome Day, is the Monday of Holy Week.
As I think of family meals, egg hunts and Easter baskets, I most often think of my little brother Johnny. John Mark Stallings (Johnny) was born in 1962 with Down syndrome and a congenital heart defect, but through the years, he taught me more than anyone about the importance of celebrating life, knowing peace and the pure joy of just being together. It’s been seven years since Johnny died, but not a day goes by that I am not reminded of Johnny’s love and his legacy.
Johnny exuded joy. Surrounded by incredible parents and four doting sisters, Johnny knew that he was a champion. While Daddy was the head football coach in both the NFL and the collegiate ranks, Johnny was the “head trainer.” Never knowing that his prognosis for life was only a few years, Johnny met each day with enthusiasm and cheer. All who knew him were richer for it. Even the toughest of linemen and Texas oilmen were touched by his gentle spirit and unconditional love. He brought delight to every room and everyone in it.
In 2013, my husband, Dr. David Vanderpool, and I moved to Thomazeau, Haiti, to bring medical care and share the love that I’ve known all of my life with the beautiful people of this country. Today as I’m surrounded by many people who face extreme poverty and mental and physical disabilities, I’m reminded of the need to be thankful and joyful, no matter the circumstances.
Growing up, I got to cheer not only for my daddy’s teams but also for my brother, as he would tackle every hardship that came his way. The love and support given to my family by dear friends and thousands of fans, whether they pulled for the Alabama Crimson Tide, Texas A&M Aggies, Dallas Cowboys or Phoenix Cardinals, made all the difference in our lives. Unfortunately, many in the U.S. aren’t aware that those with mental and physical disabilities in the developing world face unbearable adversity and need support just as badly. There is a massive stigma against the disabled community in most third tier countries where these precious people—made in the image of God—are often viewed as bad omens or cursed and endure lives of humiliation and neglect.
This is most often the case in Haiti where adults and children with disabilities are typically treated as outcasts. Whether it’s a physical or mental disability, individuals with special needs are sometimes tragically neglected, bullied and excluded from society, left to survive on their own.
As I look into the eyes of these who have been left behind, I see the face of Johnny. I wonder what his life would have been like without adoring parents and devoted siblings, supportive relatives and kind friends.
It is in the lives of these tortured souls that Johnny’s legacy lives beyond the borders of the United States and brings life in Thomazeau. A precious group of children with various types of disabilities in our rural part of Haiti are now lovingly known as “Johnny’s Kids.” These dear ones receive medical care, meals, physical therapy, education and love… in Johnny’s memory. Although many of these children have been labeled as outcasts in society, we know that each is a champion and they too can make a difference in their world, just like Johnny did in his.
This Easter, as I look into the eyes of these children, I see a familiar glow. No longer do I see despair. This year, I see joy, peace and love. I see Johnny.
Laurie Vanderpool is the co-founder and COO of LiveBeyond, a faith-based, humanitarian organization improving lives of the poor in Thomazeau, Haiti, with sustainable solutions in medical and maternal health care, clean water, education, agriculture and economic development. She is a sought after teacher and speaker and frequently speaks for Down syndrome organizations. She holds a Bachelor of Science in accounting from Abilene Christian University.
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