When a proud Mama posted her beautiful daughter on the Changing the Face of Beauty Facebook page the picture caught my eye. This girl was not only gorgeous but she was riding a horse rodeo style. I immediately had to know her story and I knew I wanted to share her with all of you!
Today I introduce you to the amazing Mahala in her Mothers words….
1. How old is Mahala?
Mahala is 7 yrs old.
2. When did you find out about her diagnosis of Down Syndrome (before or after birth) and how did you react to the news?
I did not have the prenatal testing. I was 45 yrs old and at high risk because of my age, and there was some risk in the testing. Also my doctor could not guarantee 100% accuracy in the test. I was told MANY of the test results for an amniocentesis were incorrect.
When Mahala was born, to be honest with you, I was in shock. I had never been around anyone with Down Syndrome. I had only seen the ‘mongoloid’ type portrayals on TV. You know, the ones with the dark empty eyes, and no personality, slobbery, almost a zombie. I first was so afraid of this child. I did not feel connected to her at all. It was like the child that I had expected to have, my dark haired, olive complected, brown eyed little girl, that was supposed to look just like me, had died. Here was this red headed, (yep, she was red headed at birth), fair skinned, almond eyed, definitely differently featured little creature that they handed to me in a tiny pink blanket. The doctor shook his head in disappointment. I could see the pity in the nurses’ eyes. I found myself grieving the child that ‘should have been’. I was so afraid as that doctors said words like, ‘mental retardation’, ‘low muscle tone’, ‘heart defects’, and even ‘special needs’. I thought life was over for me. When I got home I barricaded myself in the house.
Then…it came time to go for her first check-up. The baby doctor I decided to use was a friend of ours and had boarded a couple of horses at the ranch and his children took riding lessons with us. I will NEVER forget that first doctor appointment. They called us into the exam room and by the time Dr. Haggerty got in to us, I was already in tears. He took the baby from my hands. He looked me STRAIGHT in the eye and said to me. “Jerri, you know we are great friends, but I gotta say this. You need to SUCK IT UP!! You are not feeling sorry for this child. You are feeling sorry for YOURSELF! You are afraid of the life changes this could make for YOU. This child will respond, just like ANY child according to how you decide to raise her. You raise her and treat her like she’s retarded…she WILL BE retarded. You believe in her and treat her as normal as you would treat the other children, and she will respond to that and you will be amazed at what she can do. It’s all up to YOU.”
Well, I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. Oh, my GOD!!! He was right. I was afraid that MY lifestyle would change. I was afraid that I would be inconvenienced at this stage of my life. He set my thinking in the right direction. I went home and got on my knees and asked God to forgive my selfishness and I thank him for this special blessing he chose only for me.
I began from that day, reading to her, singing to her, later on teaching her reading….counting…colors…writing her name…talking…riding. OH MY GOODNESS!!! She was amazing!!! Thank God, for that good swift kick in the butt from my friend, Dr. Jesse Haggerty, who cared enough for us, to tell me like it was.
3. What is your parenting style when it comes to Mahala?
We try to afford her all the experiences her sibling have had, yet we are NOT in denial of the Down Syndrome. We try to give her the opportunity and, if she is interested, we try to make it happen for her. We may have to do things a little DIFFERENTLY than we did with the others, but we find, with trial and error, a little patience, and a WHOLE lot of perseverance, she can do just about everything the others can, it just might take a little longer.
4. Did you intend on having Mahala so deeply involved with the farm?
We had hoped. The ranch is all we do. My husband does not hunt or fish or have other ‘hobbies’. We rodeo…period. That being said, of course, we wanted her involved. We were just told at the start, when we asked if Mahala would ever be able to ride independently, that we needed to accept that she had Down Syndrome and that it was very unlikely that she would have the motor skills that it would take to safely manipulate the horse and she would not have the intellect to understand the fundamentals of controlling the horse.
5. How has her success with the horses defied the doctor’s prediction of Mahala’s life?
As I said before, they said that we should just accept her Down Syndrome diagnosis and leave well enough alone. They told us that her motor skills would be deficient, (along with barrel racing, she has also done gymnastics and cheerleading!!!) she would have low muscle tone, (she’s strong as an ox!!), and she would not understand commands nor be able to react quickly to a command. (Mahala is as focused in the practice pen as some of our older riding lesson students. There are children 3-4 years OLDER than her who cannot handle her barrel horse, Dusty).
6. How much time does she normally spend at the barn?
She goes to the barn every day after school for chores. She has her own ‘jobs’ that she is responsible for in caring for the animals. She grooms her horses, sweeps out the barn, feeds her pony, prepares the beet pulp supplement that we give to all our horses, and she works her horses in the arena about 3 times a week. We try to trail ride with her at least once a week.
7. What type of school and classes does Mahala attend?
Mahala goes to Eufaula Primary School. She is in the second grade. She is in NO special Education and has a paraprofessional who helps her with one-on-one work in the classroom.
8. If you could give one tip to a new parent to a Down syndrome baby, what would it be?
Each child, special or not, is an individual. NOBODY can tell you 100% what your child is capable of. DO NOT take anyone’s word. As the child’s parent, YOU know him/her best. Believe in them and don’t be afraid to let them try…and don’t be afraid to let them fail. The only fool proof way to not make a mistake, is to never do anything. All most of our kids need is a chance. If YOU (the parent) do not believe in this child….who will??
Mahala in the 2012 Show season at our local horse club, Stateline Horsemans Association, competed in barrel racing, arena racing, potato racing, and the tunnel race against TYPICAL kids 8 years old and under and she was awarded 8 trophy belt buckles. She was the 2012 All Around Cowgirl, as she won buckles in every event she entered.
This story is beautiful in a lot of ways…..it honestly brings tears to my eyes as I read Jerri’s words. We have all been there, in the beginning, scared and worried about what the future will hold. Jerri took that fear and put it aside and gave her daughter the opportunity to write her own path and concur her own dreams. This is a lesson to all of us. With hard work, responsibility and love our children can be strong, healthy and able citizens of our beautiful world. They are capable. We have to encourage them and have faith in them enough to let them fly! I love the saying “No one person believes in your child more then you.” I play these word in my mind all the time, especially when I am second guessing everything I am doing.
Mahala, YOU are beautiful, Strong and a winner! Jerri you are an inspiration! Thank you for sharing your beautiful story with all of us! OXOX