All I ever wanted in life was for my dad to be proud of me. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why the one man that was supposed to be wired to love me unconditionally hated me so fiercely. I remember trying so hard to just do everything right in the hopes of, just once, hearing him say, “Good job, Erin!” I never received it. When attempting anything growing up, if my outcome wasn’t perfect it wasn’t good enough. I would bend and twist myself seeking perfection, and the more I tried to be perfect the more I seemed to fail. Every mistake I made was just more ammunition for my father to use while telling me I was nothing but a screw-up. Showing emotion in my house was not an option – if you cried you were weak. Being in a constant state of pain with no soft place to fall created within me a spirit of hopelessness and resignation from ever believing that this life would be something to be proud of and enjoy. I lived in a constant state of fear and had no idea who I was at the core. The only thing I knew for certain was how much I hated life, people and myself. I thought I was God’s mistake.
The only time I ever felt joy was playing ball. Man, I never felt more alive than when I was on the field! No matter how terribly the game was going I always played with heart. A team represented everything that my family wasn’t providing. I loved finally belonging to a team — you win together, you lose together, but no matter what, the important thing is that you’re together!! My cousin taught me that beautiful lesson as we played ball together. He provided me with my only familial sense of love and togetherness. On July 7th, 2003 my world was shattered when he was killed in a car accident. He was drunk and behind the wheel and only 19 years old. When they buried my beloved cousin, I died with him. For 13 years all I could focus on was how much I wanted him back in my life.
I removed myself from that coffin in December 2015, when I finally allowed myself to deal with the pain of losing the one person I treasured the most while in Step Beyond. I had completed the Core Training earlier in the year and allowed myself to be vulnerable in nearly every area of my life, but I was still holding on tightly to the one defining moment of which I wasn’t ready to let go. I was finally able to process how deeply that grief was affecting me, and I was able to finally recognize how God had protected me on the day of his accident. You see, there are only two roads in and out of the town in which I grew up. The day he died I opted to turn right as I drove to work. Had I gone straight like I always did, I would have encountered the accident and witnessed the tragedy first-hand. God knew that seeing my cousin in that state would be an experience I could never come back from, and in Step Beyond I could finally see how God steered the wheel to provide me sanctuary that day. That moment of clarity was the catalyst for finally taking control of everything in my life and recognizing that I had power to control my destiny. I realized that if I wanted to achieve intimacy in relationships and finally get over my pain, I was going to have to accept that there’s risk in loving hard, but that I was strong enough to choose connection over fear of loss. I had to quit running from everyone and everything, quit pushing away anyone who wanted to get close to me, and believe that love wins.
What I found in those rooms was everything that my cousin told me when we were kids. I could practically hear him saying, “We’re a team! You win as a team, you lose as a team, but you will always be a team!” During my Core Training I learned to love, fight for and become a champion for not only myself, but for my classmates as well. I can now have other people in my life and love, care for and help them without losing myself in the process. People have come to trust me, depend on me and look to me as an example, and I finally trust that I am worthy of their confidence. My value and worth is within me, and God puts that worth there inside my heart. I realized that my inner strength is more powerful than the approval of anyone else. I’m perfectly imperfect and imperfection is beautiful. If I make a mistake, I now understand that it doesn’t define who I am and I can use that learning experience to grow. I follow my heart and seek my passion, while holding myself accountable for my actions and not owning burdens that aren’t mine to carry. I seek to find the value in every situation – it may not be the value I was hoping to find, but it will always present something I can use to develop and mature. I am a strong, confident reflection of myself who is worthy and deserving of God’s love.
Right after graduation in August 2015 I knew that I wanted to give back to this organization and channel the passion I have for this life-giving training, and I kicked off my journey by volunteering at check-in. In February 2017 I took the next step by interning in the Weekend and Walk, which was a breathtaking experience. Currently I am serving on the Special Needs Fund Committee and feel like I’ve found my calling.
The Special Needs Fund Committee holds a special place in my heart because my own life has been profoundly touched by a special needs angel. Sixteen years ago my sister fell while 38 weeks pregnant with my nephew JR and ruptured her gestational sac. The rupture was missed upon examination by her doctor and resulted in total loss of amniotic fluid and a dry delivery. He had also produced meconium in the womb, which he had ingested into his lungs and had caused him to develop life-threatening pneumonia. As the doctor regretfully told us that he did not expect JR to survive the night, he also delivered the hard news that JR had Down Syndrome. I remember the overwhelming feelings of fear, sadness and uncertainty that fell upon all of us. But God showed up for us – JR survived the first night, then slowly started healing from pneumonia, and then all of a sudden he started gaining weight and recovering. We finally got to bring him home and the journey of learning about and managing Down Syndrome commenced. Within the last six years he was also diagnosed as autistic.
The first time I held that little guy, his head was so tiny that it snugly fit in the palm of my hand and I was in love. I am not a parent, but I can only imagine what a mom or dad feels like when they hold their child for the first time. It truly is a blessing from God! A bundle of hope! A child is hope for the future. Despite his challenges, this boy’s heart is amazing and represents the purest form of genuine affection. He wipes the tears from your face when you’re upset and he will laugh with you when you are laughing. He went to church with me one Sunday afternoon and he stood at the door and gave every single person that walked through a giant bear hug. He has a keen intuition with people and instinctually senses when something is off with you. He is fiercely protective of his tribe, and if he senses a threat he’ll build a hedge around you with his body, stick out his hand and say, “NO!” When I do get to see him my heart just lights up and tears run down my face with how much joy he brings to my life. All of JR’s love is pure! All he knows is love! He loves all people because that is what his heart tells him to do. How different would this world be if everyone, for just one day, viewed their life though his eyes? There would certainly be no room for hate or division to flourish. Connection would be all that mattered.
What I have learned from JR is that life is exactly what you make it. Cracking a smile can brighten up your day and bless someone else. A simple smile can change the dynamics of a room. Hugging is heart to heart, right? Everyone says I give such great hugs – it was JR that taught me how to hug. I hug people like that baby boy hugs his Aunt Erin! When your day is rough he intuitively knows and he holds you just a moment longer and a little tighter. His hugs demonstrate his empathy and I try to carry that practice into my own life. JR is an amazing teenager now and he blesses me in so many tangible ways. All of the lessons that JR has taught me provide the foundation for my service on the Special Needs Fund Committee. Talking with caregivers who are seeking assistance through the fund is enlightening, rewarding and it gives me an opportunity to be a pillar of support to others. Being a special needs caregiver can be a lonely experience, and I feel honored to be an encouragement to them while they go through the process.
One of my favorite quotes is from a movie, Hope Floats: “Beginnings are scary… endings are usually sad… but it’s the middle that counts the most. Try to remember that when you find yourself at a new beginning. Just give hope a chance to float up.” Set your goals high and don’t stop reaching for them. No matter how many times you fall or get knocked down, get up and keep on rolling. Grace can be defined as accepting what is instead of resenting what isn’t – let that core truth sink in and let it carry you to where you belong.