Nick Springer: Two-Time Wheelchair Rugby Paralympian

This post is the first in a series that will focus on athletes who redefine ability in sports. The first profile is on the athlete who has had the biggest impact on my life and who has greatly influenced what my children believe is possible.

Nicks Profile Pic

Name: Nick Springer  

Hometown: Croton-on-Hudson, NY; but currently lives in Phoenix, AZ.

What sport or sports do you play? I play wheelchair rugby. I also scuba dive. I will do just about anything and everything that I get the opportunity to do.

What superpowers do you possess? I have the ability to look at any situation and come out of it with a smile.

What accomplishments in sports are you most proud of? Definitely, winning the gold beijing flowersmedal in 2008 Paralympics. But, I am even more proud of helping the people who are newly injured and getting them back on their feet by building up their confidence. It is better than winning any championship.

What books inspire you? I mostly like fiction where the characters overcome great obstacles. I am drawn to historical fiction. In college, I read the memoirs of generals from WWII. I liked their mindset. Even though they didn’t want to be in their situation, they did what they had to do. I’m a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut. I got to know him when I was in the hospital. I like Slaughterhouse 5 and how he talks about death simply being an existence in another time and space.

What songs are on your workout playlist? It depends on the day and the workout, but I usually listen to punk rock and some heavy metal. It has to be fast paced.

What’s your mantra that keeps you going during tough workouts or bad days? Keep pushing!

How would you define ability? I would change how “ability” is defined and that it is not an ability that makes you strong, but your ability to push past your weaknesses that make you strong. Strength has nothing to do with what you can do when you are at your best, but what you can do when you are at your worst.

What is your sports story? Since a story usually has an ending and I know sports will always be a part of my life whether I am playing or not, I don’t think of it is a story. It is more of a journey.

What advice do you have for other athletes? It’s not about the impact on the game itself, but the impact you have on the lives of the people you play with and the people you inspire. Success is about the impact you have on others. 

Impact

If you know an athlete who you think should be profiled because s/he believes in the possible and redefines ability, please contact email me (jlstrattonpossiblebooks@gmail.com). 

Jess Silver Is Flexing for Access

Could you define for us what is inclusive fitness?

I define inclusive or adapted fitness as allowing an individual that has any kind of limitation to be able to participate and to learn the fundamentals of exercise regardless and notwithstanding their physical limitation.  By just scaling down or adapting exercise to an individual’s needs, the individual can carry out the exercise and also learn about the importance of being strong and physically active.

Why is inclusive fitness important? 

I think it is so important because sport and fitness are fundamental to teaching life skills and soft skills. These skills include cooperation and defining what adversity is. Self-identity and self-confidence are also gained because, when you are working through a fitness regimen that is based on exercise, you are learning about your body.

Sports allow for interacting with others. Sport can be a microcosm of society where a smaller group can learn to cope with adversity. Sport can be a place where we can build to become a better society cumulatively, which is to me what sports really represents.

Would you say then that through inclusive fitness and sports, we can build a better society?

Yes, an individual that has a limitation versus somebody who does not have an obvious limitation and how do we design infrastructure in order to allow everybody to enjoy and participate actively in society. It is a social justice issue when we examine how those structures are strengthened to include everybody in something like sport and fitness.

What is your role as an inclusive fitness trainer?

I feel that it is my role to educate individuals with limitations and to help them become strong, to teach them an exercise prescription, and to teach them that they are valued members of society. I want them to know they are capable of being an athlete if they invest the time, effort and hard work into their performance. 

Being an adaptive trainer is not so different from being a mainstream trainer, but here’s why it is so important because of that social understanding. I can acknowledge that there are challenges, but I can say here’s a way that we can design and redesign curriculum to make it so that any individual can excel. 

Fitness and sport are vehicles to allow individuals that have physical limitations and injuries to manage and ameliorate their physical and emotional states of being. In fact, you can manage the disability and any atrophy by engaging in fitness and sports. So, in the end, it can actually redefine what an individual is fully capable of through fitness and sport.

So, what is your training regimen? 

It will probably make some people’s jaws drop, but I train or at least I try to train in some way, shape, or form every single day. Every day, I engage in some kind of training or movement-based activity. In terms of high-performance training, I strive to do it about three-four days a week. Because I have cerebral palsy, I know as an adult that the more I engage in movement, the more I challenge my brain through the different functional patterns, and even if there is damage associated with some part of the brain, the more improvements can happen.

Tell us about Flex for Access.

This has been an endeavor of mine that I’ve been working at developing and growing. It’s a registered nonprofit organization here in Toronto, Canada with the goal of recognizing how Cerebral Palsy affects every individual differently. It is a condition that affects 70 million people and is the most common neurological disability that children can be born with or acquire later on in their life as well, through a brain injury. Even though it’s the most common, I found that not a lot of people know that the condition affects every individual differently. Because I felt like that understanding was missing, I wanted to redefine the context from which it is understood. For me, sport was that avenue through which I could do that so Flex for Access was created.

In addition to training, founding Flex for Access, and working in Marketing and Communications, you have also written a book titled, Run: An Uncharted Direction. Can you tell us about it?

My book was something that I knew my whole life that I wanted to write. I’ve been a writer since I was six years old. I started by writing poetry and short stories. You could always find me with a pencil in my hand. For me, I wanted to write my book and put my story out there. 

We’re all on an uncharted journey. Your path and your experiences are not known to you. From the day we’re born, we become enriched by our experiences. We learn through our experiences. Some experiences are positive and some are negative. The negative ones, you learn from through adversity. But I would argue, that through adversity comes beauty. 

What I want people to learn from reading my book is that we are all on an uncharted journey. The more experiences that you expose yourself to, the more compelling and beautiful your journey will be. I want to encourage people to really embrace the challenge, embrace the unknowns, embrace the times where you feel like you’re broken, and you don’t know where you’re going. Through my story, I show how adversity breeds strength.

To close, how do you define ability? I think that ability is anything that you invest your heart and your mind into doing. 

For more on Jess Silver, watch this interview or visit her website: Flex for Access.

Bryanna’s Bold Ride

Accomplished athletes have goals, determination, and a fire inside of them. Bryanna Tanase has all that and a reason to ride. She fell in love with horses when she was just 3 years old and visiting a farm with her sister’s preschool. She spent the next 14 years dreaming about riding and learning about horses by reading books and researching riding on the internet. It wasn’t until she typed in “disabled rider” did she finally see an image of a person with a disability riding a horse and learn about Para Dressage. Then, she knew her dream could be a reality.

When Bryanna was 17 years old, she finally had access to ride a horse through a therapeutic riding center that had a lift for her to mount and dismount a horse safely. Since then, Bryanna has been riding and training with plans to participate in Para Dressage at a future Paralympic Games.

Bryanna trains multiple times a week. Some training sessions focus on the highly technical movements of Para Dressage. Other sessions focus on developing her overall strength, stamina, and riding skills. Bryanna also trains at home doing exercises to stretch and tone her muscles. This is incredibly challenging work because Bryanna has cerebral palsy which creates spasticity and uncontrollable movements in her muscles. Therefore, she must approach every day with an open mind and dogged determination to her training.

Bryanna also has one training technique that gives her an edge. She watches and analyzes hours of riding videos. She will watch fully able-bodied riders and think about how to translate their moves to her own riding style. She also watches Para Dressage riders like Sydney Collier to see possible adaptations to movements. Combining this critical analysis with Bryanna’s ability to develop deep connections with her horse, she is making great strides toward her goals of riding in FEI competitions on her way to the Paralympic Games.

However, Bryanna does not ride for the ribbons or medals. She has a larger purpose for reaching the podium. 

“I ride because I want people in the disability community to see themselves represented. I want people in the able-bodied community to better understand people with disabilities. I want to be seen as more than just a person in a wheelchair. I have goals and I am working to reach them.”

Bryanna adds that the adaptive sport of Para Dressage has not only made her physically stronger but mentally tougher. It has also connected her with a community of riders, trainers, and horses. It has even enabled her to redefine “ability” for herself.

According to Bryanna, “Ability is the natural gifts and talents that you have, but it is also the work that you put into something. My abilities have grown because of horses and riding.”

At Team Possible, we look forward to cheering Bryanna on and watching her reach her goals. If you want to join her journey, follow her on Instagram @bt.paradressage.

A Mother’s Love Is Limitless

Teaching at a women’s college, I often find myself exploring gender issues with my students. When my students shared their desire to research the representation of women with disabilities in children’s literature, I was ecstatic about their curiosity and then devastated by their discoveries.

There are a growing number of picture books highlighting women with invisible and visible disabilities such as The Girl Who Thought in Pictures, The Story of Temple Grandin by Julia Mosca and Rescue & Jessica by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes.

This growing representation is essential and demonstrates progress. However, when one more closely examines motherhood, women with disabilities seem to disappear from the pages and bookshelves. 

Think about that for a minute…think about all the books that you have read as a child or have read to a child about a mother’s love, about families…how many included representation of women with disabilities? What does this say to children? You must be fully-able bodied to be a mother. What does this lack of representation say to a young girl with a disability? You are not worthy of being a mother. What does this lack of representation say to young boys? A woman with a disability is not capable of being a mother. If you have a disability as a man, you cannot be a father. 

These may not be the intended messages, but they are the implicit messages that our children are receiving. Here is one conversation among school children from a study in the British Journal of Sociology of Education (2014) focused on the assumptions young children have about people with disabilities, 

Interviewer: Do you think disabled people sometimes have children and families of their own? 

Boy 1: No, no, no, no, no!

Girl 1: No!

Interviewer: Why is that?

Boy 1: Because they’re disabled, they won’t ever look after them because…

Boy 2: (Interrupts) They can’t look after themselves! 
The only time that this assumption was questioned was when a child stated her uncle is a disabled person and father of three children, but this was an isolated comment and was ignored by her peers. (Beckett, 867).

The issue of mothers with disabilities missing from children’s literature becomes even more complex when we look at women of color. Where are women of all ethnicities and abilities represented on the bookshelves?  If you find them, please share them with me. I need them. My students, as future educators, need them. My daughter needs them. My sons need them. We all need them.

Because…a mother’s love is universal. A mother’s love is limitless.

Until I find those books (or write them), I will share and discuss inclusive images of motherhood like the ones above with my students, my children, and my readers.

If you have images of motherhood that represent the limitless ability of all mothers, please send them my way at jenstrattonandteampossible@gmail.com. And, keep believing in the Possible!

Work Cited & Other Related Resources

Beckett, Angharad E. (2014) Non-disabled children’s ideas about disability and disabled people. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 35 (6), 856-875.

Pennel, Ashley E.; Wollack, Barbara; Koppenhaver, David A. (2018). Respectful Representations of Disability in Picture Books. Reading Teacher, 71 (4), 411-419.

We Need Diverse Books

Many Ways to Be Mighty: 35 Books Starring Mighty Girls with Disabilities

20-20 Vision for 2021

2020 gave us a lot to reflect on and learn from. It’s been hard, but there is hope. Here are a five reasons we will keep pushing forward in 2021 at Team Possible:

#1: Our first picture book biography titled, Nick Springer on the Move, featuring the sports story of wheelchair rugby champion, Nick Springer, and illustrated by Mouth and Foot Painting Artist, Christopher Kuster, is slated for publication in June 2021.

#2: Our work sharing adaptive and inclusive sports stories to REDEFINE ability has been welcomed by children at local schools and educators at national conferences.

Letter from a student after Ian and Jen presented Nick Springer’s Sports Story

#3: Team Possible blog posts have been read and shared around the globe because REPRESENTATION MATTERS.

#4: New relationships have been built with organizations like Move United, Flex for Access, Adaptively Abled Fitness, and National Paralympic Heritage Trust who share our passion for sports and access because EVERYONE can play!

#5: We got a whole new look and attitude developed by our AWESOME social media coordinator.

BONUS ITEM: If you read to the bottom, you deserve a treat. And, we’ve got one for you! Check out in this great documentary, Rising Phoenix, about Dr. Ludwig Guttmann’s vision and the power of the Paralympic Movement.

Stay tuned for more good news and sports stories! Until then, keep believing in the POSSIBLE!

No Limits- A Wheelchair Basketball Dream for Malat Wei

Many young people have sports dreams. It may be to run the 100-meter dash in the Paralympic Games or to win a wheelchair rugby championship. Few have dreams like Malat Wei, and even fewer work tirelessly for years to see their dreams come true. However, Malat is no ordinary dreamer or average athlete. As a result, he has achieved what some once thought impossible. He brought the game he loves, wheelchair basketball, to the people of the country that he loves, South Sudan.

Malat Wei during his first trip back to South Sudan. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

Malat, who was born in the war-torn country of South Sudan, lost the use of his lower limbs due to polio at the age of three. He lived for years with his family in refugee camps before coming to the United States where he was outfitted with his first wheelchair and later exposed to adaptive sports. Through wheelchair basketball, Malat found confidence and strength that has empowered him to graduate from high school and become a premier player of the game. The transformative powers of sport led Malat to believe that if he could return to his home country he could share all that he has learned to help other individuals with disabilities to redefine how they see themselves and shift the perspective of community members on the value of people with disabilities.

Malat and Jess enjoying the game that transformed their lives. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

Jess Markt, a former wheelchair basketball player and current Diversity, Inclusion, and Sports Advisor for the  International Committee Red Cross (ICRC), also has a similar belief in the power of adaptive sports, due to a life-changing spinal cord injury and the introduction to wheelchair basketball during his rehabilitation process. In his role at ICRC, Jess has started numerous adaptive sports programs in countries caught in conflict. As a result, Jess visited South Sudan in 2017 and introduced the sport of wheelchair basketball in Juba.

When Malat saw a video on social media of the work that Jess was doing in his home country, he reached out to him. Jess understood Malat’s desire to become involved in the project and immediately saw the value in bringing Malat to South Sudan. Hence, he started advocating for him to join on the next trip as an assistant coach.

Malat demonstrating wheelchair basketball skills to new players. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

In 2018, for the first time since leaving South Sudan as a young boy, Malat returned home. Now, strong, educated, and empowered, Malat shared his passion for the game, belief in the power of adaptive sports, and hope for improved conditions for all people with disabilities. The pair spent their days teaching drills, wheelchair techniques, and the rules of the game. They also worked off the court to foster inter-tribal relationships and shift perspectives about the potential of people with disabilities by leveraging what was occurring on the court.

South Sudan wheelchair basketball players united through sport. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

The play taking place was a fulfillment of their dreams and a testament to all that they have overcome. It is also the true embodiment of the vision that the founder of the Paralympic Games, Dr. Ludwig Gutmann, had on the field of the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1948.

Players celebrating their successes on and off the court. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

In conclusion, at a time when many dreams have been deferred and hope may be hiding, one only needs to speak with Malat and Jess for a short time to believe again that ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. These two inspire one to dream big, dig deep, and to keep moving forward to achieve the Possible.

Be sure to check out the award-winning documentary No Limits: Wheelchair Basketball in South Sudan which features Malat and Jess on their incredible journey to change the world through the game of wheelchair basketball. 

Some Impressive Sports Story Stats

Through the ICRC, Jess has brought wheelchair basketball to 19 war-torn countries with plans to expand to a total of 28.

Jess and the ICRC have worked to provide over 1,000 wheelchairs constructed by Motivation, a UK based organization that builds wheelchairs specifically for users in developing countries.

In 2018, there was 1 female wheelchair basketball player in South Sudan. In 2019, there were 25 female players with plans to develop more programming across the country.

Nevertheless, she persisted…the first female wheelchair basketball player in the South Sudan program. Photo Credit: Niki Clark

Catch Katie If You Can

Meet Katie Eddington, an 11-year-old who was born to run. If you are looking for Katie, you can find her running around her neighborhood or practicing with her local track team. Katie loves to move fast, really fast. She is so fast that she has set the national record for 8-11 year-olds in both the 100M and 200M at the Endeavor Games. However, her goals are loftier with her eyes on the Paralympic Games.

We caught up with Katie and her mom, Samantha, after their recent trip to Florida. It wasn’t a regular vacation in the middle of a pandemic. It was an important trip for Katie to get fitted for her new running blade. As a young and growing athlete, Katie needs to be fitted every 6 months for her running blade.

Katie’s mom also runs, but she doesn’t run to set records. Samantha runs to raise funds for the non-profit, 50 Legs, which provides prosthetic devices to individuals who have experienced leg or foot loss. Despite the Boston marathon being canceled for 2020, a major fundraising event for this mom from Kentucky, she has still raised over $18,000 for 50 Legs on her webpage. Knowing personally the importance of adaptive sports for youth, Samantha has a desire to raise even more stating, “That amount will be enough to get lots of kids running blades.”

Like her mom, Katie is trying to make a difference in the world for people with disabilities. With the goal of increasing the representation of people with exceptionalities in the media, Katie is a model for Athleta Girl. It was a photo of her running in a recent catalog that led us to pursue her sports story. Despite COVID-19, you will see Katie donning Athleta’s newest fall gear soon via photos and videos from home.

My daughter, Caitlin, who drafted the questions for our interview and co-authored this post wants to be sure you know one more very cool thing about this strong and fierce athlete. During her trip to Florida, Katie recently got a tattoo. Well, to be more accurate, her plastic molded foot on her every day prosthetic leg got a tattoo. There are advantages to being an amputee.

So you can catch Katie on the pages of an Athleta catalog, but don’t try to catch her on the track because she will leave you behind. Keep running, Katie! Keep believing in the Possible!

Fun Side Note: When I saw Katie’s photo in the Athleta catalog, I was inspired to write the post, Representation Matters. Fortunate for us, Samantha came across the post and reached out to Team Possible. Now, we get to share her sports story and watch her achieve her dreams.

Representation Matters

Being a professor of education for over a decade, I have read lots of children’s books. Over the past five years, I have focused my reading on children’s books representing people with disabilities, and you might be shocked at what I found or maybe not…

  1. You can find many picture books about disabilities, but few picture books where the main character has an exceptionality.
  2. You can find the sports stories of athletes who play traditional sports, but you cannot find picture books about athletes who play adaptive sports. 
  3. You can find lots of pirate picture books featuring amputees holding weapons or bottles, but you cannot find books about going back to school that include children with limb differences. 
Pirate Pete by Kim Kennedy

When I reflect on what I can and cannot find for young readers, I wonder what messages they are getting from the books that do and do not appear on our shelves. Are these the messages we intended?

  1. You can talk about disabilities, but you can’t talk with people who have exceptionalities.
  2. You can hear the sports stories of traditional athletes, but the triumph of athletes who play adaptive sports are not as valuable. 
  3. You can read about amputees as villains, but they shouldn’t be included in your classroom.

Fortunately, there is a growing representation of people with exceptionalities in the media. You can see a young boy in a wheelchair on a poster at Target. In my Athleta catalog, a young girl who is an amputee is running across the page. So now, I simply wonder when children’s literature will catch up and include everyone on the shelf. 

Oliver Garza Pena gets that representation matters. Photo Credit: Ollie’s World Facebook Page

Until then, I will blog, teach, and present the sports stories of athletes who redefine ability and believe in the possible because I know representation matters. Don’t believe me. After a group of third graders, heard my son, Ian, and I share the sports story of wheelchair rugby champion, Nick Springer, and they asked to write him letters.

Nick Springer, two-time wheelchair rugby Paralympian. Photo Credit: Christopher Griffith for Vanity Fair

Dear Nick,

“You showed me that anything is possible. You showed me that there are no limits to what I can do.” -Sierra

“I think you are brave and I know you are strong.” -Olivia

“Never let anyone tell you what you can’t do and what you can.” -Emerson

“Everyone loved how you persevered.” -Grace

“I think you are brave like a superhero. I like the way you do wheelchair rugby.” -Ahmed

“I bet you liked crashing, slamming, banging, and helping your team. I think it would be fun to play wheelchair rugby.” -Logan

“It felt good telling your story to the class. I was proud of you and Mom and me. It also felt good to talk about someone else who has a disability like me. The best part was doing it with Mom. Love, Ian”

I told you REPRESENTATION MATTERS.

Ian representing his story at Shriner’s Hospital. Photo Credit: Shriner’s Hospital

Shriners Hospitals for Children Making an Impact

When filling out the adoption paperwork for Ian to join our family, we had to identify resources in our community that could support our son’s upper limb difference. We knew it was a blessing that just 30 minutes away was Shriners Hospitals for Children. However, at that time we had no idea of the impact that the team at Shriners Hospital would make on our family and just how grateful we would be for this amazing resource in our own backyard. Here are three ways Shriners Hospital has improved our lives:

#1 Modeling Acceptance. Did you know representatives from Shriners Hospitals visit schools and teach about physical differences, equip children with vocabulary to discuss disabilities, and provide hands-on experiences with prosthetic devices, braces and more? I didn’t until the counselor at Ian’s school arranged for outreach visits to his school, and Ian came home from school with a “finger cast.” He then shared how Miss Lee and Miss Kristen from Shriners had visited his class with dolls, braces, and made molds of the children’s fingers to show them some of the services provided at the hospital.

A Thank You Note from Ian’s Classmate
Photo Credit: Thankful Mom

With their modeling and accepting language, Ian told me how he decided to stand up in front of his class and tell his friends about his upper limb difference. His classmates asked him questions like, “Does it hurt?” or “Will it grow back?” And with pride, he answered them, “No, it doesn’t hurt” and “Nope, it won’t grow back”. For a child once taught to hide his little hand, with the guidance of Kristen and Lee, he was able to educate others and share with confidence how he can do anything. He just does it differently.

#2 Making Play Accessible. Kids are meant to play that is how they learn and explore the world. But when a child has a physical difference, his/her ability to fully engage with his/her surroundings may be limited. For Ian, he takes on most two-handed tasks like cutting his food, zipping his coat, or even playing basketball by making modifications. It takes practice, but he usually figures it out and doesn’t look back. However, learning to ride a bike proved to be unusually challenging for him. After lots of falls, scraped elbows and knees, and plenty of band-aids, Ian decided to ask the doctors at Shriners for some help. During our annual visit to the upper limb difference clinic, he stretched out his arms and said to the doctor, “Look at my arms, they are not the same length. It makes me wobble, and fall off my bike. Can you help me?”

Ian’s Big and Little Hands
Photo Credit: Proud Lucky Fin Mom

The doctor held Ian’s outstretched arms, smiled back at him, and said, “You’re right. They are not the same. But, we can make you a bike hand and that will help you balance on your bike. Do you want a bike hand?”

“Yes!” exclaimed Ian. Then, the nurse simply walked us out of the examination room and down the hallway to Pediatric Orthotic and Prosthetic Services Department (POPs). There Brock (he really is as cool as his name) made a mold that day for Ian’s new bike hand. It wasn’t until a rainy and cold November day that Ian got to test out his new bike hand. Since the weather wasn’t cooperating, Ian got to ride smiling down the hallways of the hospital. It was absolutely thrilling to watch him maneuver confidently around the corners and even ride one-handed while giving the nurses and doctors high-fives.

Brock and Caitlin watch Ian test out his bike hand while riding through the hallways of the hospital. Photo Credit: Proud Bike Hand Mom

BIKING UPDATE: In August, after lots of practice Ian finally learned to ride his bike without training wheels. Learning to ride his bike was a redefining moment for Ian. He truly learned to believe that he could do anything!

Ian is all smiles after riding his bike to the beach with his siblings and without training wheels.
Photo Credit: Proud Bike Mom

#3 Valuing Our Story. This third gift of valuing our story I never expected, but it might be the most important service that Shriners has provided to our family. The staff listened our story. They understood our story. They encouraged us to share our story. In the end, they valued our experience and literally offered a helping hand when we needed it. Their encouragement let us know that anything is possible for Ian. Their compassion let us know that it is okay to ask and accept help with no conditions attached. So on this #GivingTuesday, please consider supporting this amazing organization with a donation. And remember, always believe in the possible.

Ian showing radio hosts, Zito and Kera, from Mix 93.1 his bike hand.
Photo Credit: Shriners Hospital Photographer

Adoption Year #2: Redefining Family

Painted Family Rocks to celebrate Ian’s 2nd Family Day
Photo Credit: Proud Mom

November is National Adoption Month, and I thought it might be the perfect time to share an update on our adoption journey. While year one was mostly spent navigating new territory, which made the year both beautiful and overwhelming all at the same time, year two has been spent settling into our new “normal.” For us to get there, we have had to find time for healing and redefining our family. Let me explain…

Ian has the most beautiful mind. He is inquisitive and a big thinker. Every car ride is filled with questions, observations, and more questions. Often one idea bounces to another and yet another. Ian also has endless energy much like a bouncing rubber ball filled with joy, sunshine, and sprinkled with stardust. However, when you put all of this inside of a box like a structured school day or a martial arts lesson, it looks a lot like ADHD. It’s not

Ian is excited for his first day of 3rd grade.
Photo Credit: Proud Mom

It is, however, a brain that has experienced trauma from years of living in an institutional setting where all of your basic needs are not always met and from suffering significant losses. Fortunately, the brain can heal and grow. The fancy term for this is neuroplasticity and understanding this growth mindset has been a key component to Ian’s academic success, social-emotional development, and us becoming a family.

How does parenting from a trauma-informed perspective look different? For me, it has been three important approaches:

Ian inspecting shells on the rocky seashore of Maine. Photo Credit: Proud Mom
  1. Creating space. I try to create space for Ian to have some quiet time each day. I try to create space for him to talk about what is on his mind. I try to create space for hurt or angry feelings, and I try to create space for hugs and physical closeness. 
  2. Addressing sensory needs. I try to limit over-stimulating situations, especially if he is tired. I also let Ian know his schedule ahead of time, notifying him of any changes in it, and giving him a heads up on transitions. Additionally, I plan extra time for transitions and always have healthy snacks. I make it a priority that he is hydrated and well-fed. (We all function better when we are not hangry.) I make sure he exercises daily and gets to bed early. In fact, he loves the predictability of his bedtime routine where he gets his clothes out for the next day, takes a shower, and then cuddles while being read a bedtime story.
  3. Advocating for Ian. This is the hardest task for me because it means I have to get into some uncomfortable conversations with people who care about Ian but may not fully understand the complexity of his needs or situation. At home, it may mean changing a family tradition or vacation plans. At school, it might be asking for more services or holding providers accountable. With friends, it might be reminding them that I am Ian’s “real mom” and that his biological mom (a term they need to add to their vocabulary) loved him dearly. 

As the healing has taken place for Ian, we have also been able to focus on redefining who we are as a family. It has meant “Family Meetings” where we problem-solve on issues like chores, teasing each other, or how to get ready for school on time. Some of the redefining even comes in the form of scheduling events together like family movie nights or game nights. And a lot of it has been spending time outside together. Mother Nature has a lot of healing power.

Taking a break during a coastal hike.
Photo Credit: Seth Stratton

For example, in July, we headed to the coast of Maine for a few days of camping. We stayed in tents, built campfires to roast marshmallows, and went on lots of hikes exploring the rocky inlets of Casco Bay. During one of our hikes, we spotted two dozen horseshoe crabs huddled along the shoreline. With closer examination, we realized that they were mating while some lonely crabs were jockeying for a mate. We stood there watching in amazement, wondering about the event, and asking each other questions about what we saw. Later in the evening, we sat on rocks observing seagulls hovering high above craggy ledges with clams in their mouths. They would then drop the clams to crack them on the ledges below and then finally swoop down to grasp the exposed meat in their beaks. We cheered when they were successful and empathized with the gulls who, after much effort, lost their meat to a larger more dominant gull.

As you can see, this second year has been filled with lots of small moments where we have slowed down to connect, heal, and build something new. We will all admit that what we are building is not perfect and the process is often messy. But… it is us weaving our lives together. It is how we define our family.

Celebrating Family Day 2019
Photo Credit: Brian Marsh Photography

The Unexpected Village Built through Adoption

When we decided to adopt our son, Ian, we could confidently tell you a few things about him. He was seven. He was living in an orphanage in China, and he had an upper limb difference. We could also tell you that the adoption process was filled with lots of paperwork and tons of waiting. From our adoption classes, speaking with families who had adopted, and the books that we read about the topic, we could tell you with some confidence that there would be difficult times and challenging conversations. However, we never would have told you that we were adopting a village, but we did. Let me explain…

The first photo we ever saw of Ian. Photo Credit: Unknown

First, our adoption agency connected us with other families who had recently adopted or were in the process of adopting from the same orphanage in China. These initial connections became the inner circle of our village where we exchanged tips on paperwork or travel and shared photos from the orphanage. During our time in China, this group was a lifeline for me sending me encouragement and support when I was exhausted physically and emotionally. And over the past 19 months of being home, they have cheered for us during every milestone and shared stories that have helped us piece together Ian’s early years.

Ian and his earliest family from his orphanage in China. Photo Credit: Village Mom

Recently, many families from this group gathered together and eight children who were adopted over the past three years were able to play and laugh together again. I watched in absolute amazement as Ian splashed and swam alongside his earliest “siblings.” The same children, who I had stared at in so many photos from his orphanage, were now in front of me smiling, playing, and being embraced in endless hugs from their families. It was truly an unexpected gift that was only possible through this village.

There are many other unexpected places where our village has grown like the grocery store or doctor’s office. For example, the clerk who witnessed me talking to Ian through Google translate at the checkout during his first trip to a grocery store has become a villager and always asks how he is doing. The nurses who administered six immunization shots at lightning speed during his first visit to the doctor’s office ask for constant updates and celebrate every inch he has grown. Then, there is the team at Shriner’s Hospital who have redefined for Ian what is possible. They cheered and gave him high-fives when he rode his bike through the hallways of the hospital with his new bike hand. All unexpected villagers tied together by one little boy.

Ian at the beginning of his ride through the halls of Shriner’s Hospital Photo Credit: Proud Village Mom

Then, there are Ian’s friends and their families. There’s the family who embraced Ian before he was even home and had him over for his first play date when his main mode of communication was through Google Translate. Another family who played rounds of Connect Four with Ian at their home and laughed as he beat them all. And most recently, the farm family who had Ian over for his first sleepover where he fed the chickens, cared for the horses, and learned how to use a lasso. All of them and so many more have become a part of our unexpected village.

Ian using his new lasso on his friend. Photo Credit: Village Farm Mom

Finally, there is Ian’s village at school where the teachers embrace him with love and support. They take photos or video capturing moments of his first field trip or presentation knowing how important these are to us and Ian’s story. Their eyes fill up with tears at our end-of-year meeting when they discuss Ian’s progress, and they understand my tears as I listen to every report.

I wanted to share our unexpected village with you because it is such a beautiful part of adoption. I thought we would be on our own navigating this journey. Instead in the 21 months that Ian has been in our lives, this little boy has brought an entire village into our hearts, and I am deeply grateful for every single member of it. Believe in the Possible!

Grateful Village Mom and Ian Photo Credit: Deb Hanna Photography