This is Bill, and Bill is SERIOUSLY Not Boring. He is 50 years old (almost 51!), lives with his sister who is his loving caretaker, and his favorite things are his sister’s homemade cookies, his nieces and nephews, and Reba McEntire. Bill has Down Syndrome, and he has a lot to teach the rest of us about love and enthusiasm. Bill has some BIG feelings, and it is contagious.
I had the privilege of meeting Bill this winter. We were at a chili cookoff at our church, I introduced myself and we started talking. He started telling me about his nieces and nephews (he has their pictures in his wallet and proudly shows them to everyone he meets) and how much he loves kids. He told me that he would like to help and volunteer with the children’s activities at our church. I found it interesting he would mention that to me since I am not involved in the leadership of that ministry. I think now that it was divine intervention. I told him his idea sounded great, and that I would have to talk with his sister and the children’s ministry leadership and I would get back with him.
Then you know what I did? I am shamed to say, not very much. His sister agreed that he could help out and that she could bring him. I mentioned it via text or FB to a couple people involved with the ministry and didn’t receive a response. I don’t think they realized I was asking permission to move forward, OR they didn’t see my message. It was an incredibly busy time of year so I let the issue drop for a couple months. I didn’t want to overstep my bounds, and I knew that helping Bill get involved would take a bit of logistical work. I was worried that people would see that as an inconvenience (as an aside, that is exactly why a lot of families of children with special needs avoid church, because they are afraid their children would be seen as an inconvenience). I should have given more credit to my church and the loving people that are a part of it, and I should have followed through. Thankfully, I was given a second chance to give BILL a chance.
A couple months later Bill was baptized, and it was the talk of the church (I’m so sad I missed it). Rarely has anyone responded more jubilantly to the experience, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the sanctuary. Bill came out of the water with his arms triumphantly above his head, and walked off with shouts of joy, “YES!” His elation was contagious, AND gained him a host of new fans. Everyone was on Team Bill.
When I heard about Bill’s baptism I remembered his request and I felt ashamed that I let it drop so easily. The church’s response to his Baptism gave me the encouragement I needed to step out and try and make it work somehow so that Bill could volunteer with the kids. Soon thereafter I was at an Easter Egg hunt and found that the right people were put in my path so I could finally talk to them about it (I hunted down the others). The immediate response of every single person I talked to was, “AWESOME! Of course!” Again, I should have known that would be their response.
The next day I found Bill and his sister at church and asked him if he still wanted to help with the children. His smile lit up his whole face and he exclaimed, “Oh THANK YOU, Jennifer!” and hugged me so tightly I thought my ribs would crack. When others in the church found out what was happening they were just as excited as Bill, and it warmed my heart to see. I loved watching the enthusiastic, caring way that everyone pitched it to help find ways for Bill to contribute. And yes, it took a little bit of logistical work. And YES, it was absolutely worth it.
That night Bill and his sister volunteered in a class of 3rd grade children, which included my youngest son (pictured with Bill). With his sister’s permission I gave a brief introduction that mentioned Bill had Down Syndrome. The leaders and I had decided that the children were old enough to know that something was different about Bill, so it was best to be open about it. In my experience if you tell children, “Different is cool,” they will believe you. (It is when we do NOT talk about it that causes problems, because silence makes being different seem like something secret and shameful.) I also told them that Bill had a hearing aid and if they didn’t understand something he said it was okay to ask him to repeat it. The kids just listened and were all, “Okay,” and that was it. Moving on. Bill was one of them now.
Bill LOVES volunteering with the children, and we LOVE watching him. He walks around gleefully with high-fives for everyone and gets right in there during the games, encouraging the children and calling them out when they misbehave. He keeps those kids in line! I have been told that when the children get a little too worked up and need to calm down they actually listen more to Bill than the rest of the leaders. At the end of one Sunday night I witnessed Bill surrounded by a group of 3rd graders, and he had the rapt attention of every single one as he talked. They completely accepted and respected him, as they should. I am so incredibly glad that we gave them the opportunity to do so!
This has definitely been a learning experience for the children, and has taught them about empathy, diversity, and respect. It has also taught the adults (including me). We shouldn’t dismiss others or devalue their contributions because they are different. Sometimes that takes accommodation, but it is important and oh-so-worth-it. We need to be willing to WORK to make it happen. That is exactly what church is all about: where EVERYONE belongs, and everyone is important. Watching Bill interact with those children has been a little glimpse of heaven on earth.
You see, it isn’t just this process that has been a learning experience, it is knowing Bill himself. In the beginning we thought we were helping him, but we very quickly realized it really was Bill who was helping us. He has taught us all about love, enthusiasm, and serving with a joyful heart. I am grateful that he was generous enough to share his gifts with us. I am also grateful that my church was willing to be open to what Bill has to teach us. Go Team Bill!
Philippians 2:3-4 “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
UPDATE 5/6/2015: Bill has a birthday next week and what he wants more than anything is a birthday “hello” from Reba. Check out the video message he recorded for her in the follow-up post: “Bill’s Message to Reba McIntyre,” and help spread the word so that maybe he will get his wish!
UPDATE 2/24/2016: Bill has now been happily serving with the Children’s Ministry for almost a year now. I wrote about him again in this post, “People I Want to be More Like in 2016,” because he is still teaching us new things on a regular basis. Thank you, Bill! We are better for knowing you.
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