I have volunteered as a youth leader for the past six years with a local Catholic youth group. Each one of the students I have worked with has taught me a great deal and helped me grow in knowing myself as I have striven to help them do the same. Of all the students I have worked with, there was one, Lexi, who taught me the most.
When you meet Lexi, there are a few things you notice about her: her big, unguarded smile; her trusting demeanor; easy laugh; contagious joy; and oh yeah…her physical difficulty walking. Lexi has cerebral palsy. She also has a developmental delay due to experiencing hydrocephalus at a young age as a side effect of her cerebral palsy.
I had some reservations when she joined the group. I was concerned more about how the other girls would respond to her, especially because she was at the developmental age of a ninth-grader when the other girls were seniors in high school. I was surprised by these reservations because of my own disability of Multiple Sclerosis.
Throughout the year, Lexi would consistently come to our small group meetings and always brought her joy and sincerity. In the springtime, we went on our big annual retreat which requires a cross-country road-trip. My supervisors and I were concerned about allowing Lexi to come, thinking it would be too much. We did not give her enough credit. We were able to find a solution in which her mom would come to assist her as needed.
Before the retreat, my co-leader and I met with Lexi to prep her on what to expect for the road-trip and retreat. We didn’t want her to feel overwhelmed or to get hurt. There’s a lot of good, clean, rowdy fun that happens at these retreats. We encouraged her to find a place in the back of the auditorium at the retreat so that she could easily take a break if feeling overwhelmed. I was surprised to see her in the front row on opening night of the retreat, right by the worship band. I was impressed with her courage and self-awareness. She knew what her limits were better than any of us. She knew what she wanted at that retreat, and she knew what she could handle. The other girls in the group and myself were so impressed by this girl and taught by her witness to be more joyful and genuine with each other. At the end of the year, each girl took turns honoring Lexi for her many gifts and for how she had touched each of them.
To all of you who are reading this, I just want to share this little anecdote about Lexi as a means of encouragement. I don’t know what it’s like to have cerebral palsy, but I do know the challenges that face you when you have a disability. There are times when you are told you can’t do something because of your disability or condition. There are times when you tell yourself that you can’t do something, and then there are times when really you just can’t do something. Lexi encouraged me by her example to not give into the limitations – real or imagined – of my own disability but continue to take risks and try new things. With her courage, joy, and authenticity, she was willing to try different things like joining a new small group and going on a retreat out-of-state. She learned in the trying what was too much but also learned that her limitations were not as vast as she was told or thought. This may sound a little cliché, but I want to end this post with one of my favorite quotes which has given me strength in my Multiple Sclerosis: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. So, let us begin.”