A soft voice that speaks volumes

“Why is he sad?” Azalea asked me. This was only the second time we’d met our young friend, who is the son of my fitness coach. It was a day to celebrate him, a child with Down Syndrome, and to raise awareness and money for the organizations that support families and provide enrichment opportunities and therapies for children with Down Syndrome. This was our first time participating in The Buddy Walk, which we were inspired to do because my trainer has been so supportive of my progress and uplifting during times when it would be easier to be sad. So when her son sat down on a bench with just a quarter of the one-mile walk to go, she encouraged our group to go on and that she would stay with him. (None of us walked on without them).

“He’s sitting down. He’s upset,” Azalea said in the way 2-year-olds narrate situations so awkwardly matter-of-factly.

After some others in our group tried without avail to coax him off the bench, I tried my best to encourage him. But, in my blatant attempts, I failed to recognize that he doesn’t know me. He’s met me only twice. And as loving as I am of other people, he has special needs that I have no experience accommodating. At one point, I made mention of just how many people were there for him, surrounding him. At another point, I encouraged Azalea to clap for him and cheer his name. Good intentioned as my attempts might have been, my naivety might have actually worsened his level of comfort during a time he was already feeling overstimulated.

“I want him to feel better,” she said, and so we walked hand-in-hand around the bench to where he was sitting. She didn’t get close to him, rather kept several feet of distance between them. It’s not the way I’d have comforted someone, but this seemed important to her, so I stood by her as she did it her way. I saw he was holding a bottle of water. I didn’t realize when I’d given him that bottle of water a few minutes earlier that he wasn’t able to open it by himself. He wanted to drink from a fountain, but the water was shooting out too powerfully and put him off. I had offered him the unopened bottle I’d grabbed and thrown into my bag before beginning the walk.

A friend sitting beside him on the bench offered to open the bottle of water for him, an offer he willingly accepted. Not only had I been clueless about the way to support him during an overwhelming time, but I realized in that moment that in trying to offer a solution, I’d actually created a problem for him. He didn’t need a reminder of how many people were surrounding him, or claps or cheers of encouragement. He didn’t even need a bottle of water he couldn’t open. What he needed, I realized in that moment, was a gentle heart and a calm, quiet ally.

“Will you walk with me?” She asked, barely audible even to me, and I was crouching next to her. I didn’t hear his reply, just her soft voice again. “He said yes!” Their quiet interaction was heartfelt and moving, and in that moment I had a bit of a revelation. My motivation had been to support my trainer and her family. It had been to raise money for a good cause and support people who need it. It had been to give back to a sweet boy whose smile lit up one afternoon months earlier we’d spent together at a pool. But I had a new reason now: to build connections between children with special needs and those without. My upbringing was one of acceptance, my constitution is one of openness, sensitivity and inclusion. But even now, I don’t have adult friends with special needs. We didn’t belong to the same clubs or athletic teams, and I didn’t have children with disabilities in my classes. So much of our current learning structure creates separation and division rather than inclusive opportunities for all children to interact and understand each other. To grow up knowing that when there is an overwhelmed child on a bench, you don’t clap or cheer or remind him of his overwhelming surroundings. That sometimes only a quiet voice can cut through the noise.

I promised myself I’d never forget that moment, not just because it was transformative for me, but because I don’t want Azalea to lose this part of herself that makes her so capable of connecting with other people. I don’t want this piece of her humanity to be conditioned out of her, or for her to forget how much power lives in her quiet voice. I’m going to seek out opportunities for Azalea to interact with children who are different from her in all sorts of beautiful ways so that she may look at anyone she meets and recognize a friend. And I’m going to tell this story of the boy on the bench to Azalea a hundred or two hundred or five hundred times throughout her life so that she will never forget her power of her kindness.

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