One year ago, I sat at Star Night, a benefit for Siskin Children’s Institute in Chattanooga. My goal was simple: to meet Kenny Rogers. You see, years before, when I was only five or six, I started to notice the presence of a strange salt-and-pepper haired man in my house. Not my Daddy (he still isn’t grey), but a different, distinguished looking gentleman whose face was plastered everywhere. Even on the inside of our kitchen cabinet doors, in a pose that can only be described as 1980’s classy.
My introduction to the one-and-only Kenny Rogers came at an early age in the form of make-shift karaoke sessions to “Islands in the Stream” and “Coward of the County.” I was, weirdly, just as in love with him as my Mom seemed to be. So when I found out my station had tickets to Siskin’s Star Night and Kenny was the headliner, I was in.
That night, I met Kenny (stretched face and all). He even commented on my 6-month pregnant belly. I told him if we didn’t already have a name picked out, I would have considered McKenna.
But Mr. Rogers wasn’t the only person I was introduced to that night. For the first time, I heard of 13-year-old Anna Frierson and her place on her middle school cheerleading team. Anna has Down Syndrome and is a graduate of Siskin’s Early Learning Center. A few weeks later, I met Anna and her parents to do a story for Newschannel 9. I knew everyone who saw the piece would fall in love with Anna just like I did. Because of her determination, her spirit, her easy way of fitting in with every other girl on the sidelines. Anna was making herself at home in a spot where no other special needs student had before in Hamilton County.
That night, Anna’s father told me, “We never let any doctor’s diagnosis define our daughter.” I could see the love in his eyes for Anna, his pride. Little did I know how I would look back on that day, that meeting, and realize it happened for such a special reason. At this moment, Down Syndrome was only the subject of a story to me. A reason to admire the strength of another family. I had no idea, three months later, it would be my reality.
I told that story to introduce this year’s Star Night Video. I stood in front of a few thousand people and introduced them to the light of my life. But, as it has so frequently in the past 8 months, it didn’t come without tears. And when I choked up, and told the black-tie audience that I was sorry for getting so emotional, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was my sweet husband. He told me later he felt like he was being pushed out of his seat, that he couldn’t sit still while I cried on stage. He held my hand while I finished, and everyone got to see the reason we were there.
After the crowd saw that video, they donated another $40,000 to Siskin Children’s Institute. I like to think that my Lila helped write a few of those checks.
As the night went on, I met so many wonderful families who shared their stories with me. Many came up just to say that they had been in our shoes, and wouldn’t change it for the world. It reminded me that whether we are on the stage in front of a crowd decked out in sequins and tuxes, at the grocery store or on the playground, we are not alone on this journey. Someone else knows our pain, our struggles, our pride, our happiness. As I said to the crowd that night, sometimes life throws you a curve ball, and you just have to adjust your swing. And you can STILL knock one out of the park.
We sure did.