You know, I get discouraged sometimes with my government, with my president, with my countrymen and women, with my country as whole. I suppose it is a natural thing. We all want a better life, especially when it comes to our children. Add to that, waiting is hard, so hard! We have been waiting for proper recognition as well as answers from our collective country about the current autism crisis for what seems like forever! Then take into consideration watching your child with autism grow up before your eyes while still waiting for improvements and unity across the land in services, acceptance, tolerance, acknowledgment, improvements to gainful employment, mentoring, insurance reform, education, protection, better services and resources for adults on the spectrum, and on and on and on. It becomes nearly all one can bear to continue to wait. So, we cope. In our family, one of the biggest ways we cope is we get busy. We take action! And we advocate. We advocate anywhere and everywhere we can!
Our family has been fighting the good fights (there are many) as well as the not so good fights (there are many of those as well) on behalf of those with autism and their families for nearly a decade now. For the vast majority of those years, we have been pounding the pavement meeting as many of our influential elected officials or soon to possibly be elected officials as time and circumstances would allow for us to. It is something we CAN do. So we do.
Our son with autism, who is now ten, has always played an active role in our mission. So much so, he takes ownership in what we do. He has been raised to appreciate our very unique political process here in the United States of America. He has seen firsthand how our processes works. He understands how those processes are meant to work FOR him, for ALL people within our great nation; no matter your race, creed, religion, nor your differentiated ability. It has been a process......oh, the stories I could tell you. It has not always been an easy process, but it has been a valued and worthwhile process in our family and home, one we don't take for granted.
We have met and questioned very nearly every candidate who has campaigned in our home state of Iowa, candidates from the current year's presidential as well as the last. (See photos at the end of this post.) Our list is long and impressive, however that is not why do what we do. We do it because we CAN. We do it because we understand our inalienable basic human rights in this great land of ours; we also understand that with those rights comes responsibility. We take those rights along with the responsibilities very seriously. Above all else, we do it because we love our son. WE love him beyond measure. We do it to help him not only learn that he is every bit as valued as the next person, but to BELIEVE it as well.
And he does. As he should.
Although our life's mission is very definitely an extremely politically charged one, it can by no means have boundaries or lines which are not easily crossed by any and all. Autism cannot afford partisanship. We need every party and every one working together and working hard! That is a plain and simple fact.
Most recently, September 1, 2012, to be exact, we were successful in meeting our president. Yes, our president. President Barack Obama. The very magnitude of that still brings tears to my eyes. I honestly don't think I can describe not only what that meant to us, but how that felt. I was as giddy as a teenage girl on a first date with the anticipation of the mere POSSIBILITY that we would be successful in meeting our country's leader, let alone speak with him. It was such a long shot.
So how does one go about meeting the president of the United States of America? I don't know. I only know how we were able to accomplish it. We used every resource and contact available to us that we had the great fortitude and good fortune to make along the way in this amazing journey of ours. For example, a former DHS case worker, who is now a national delegate for the Democratic Party, was able to secure tickets for us. She was very familiar with our political adventures and autism advocacy. She had been Sam's DHS case worker during the 2008 election.
I was then successful in turning those general admission tickets into VIP tickets, with a well placed, timely phone call to the Obama for America headquarters in Sioux City, IA where the event was scheduled to be held. As it turned out, the man responsible for the the event becoming a reality, has a nephew with severe autism. He loved hearing about our mission. He was grateful that others were willing to even make an attempt at reaching the president on behalf of individuals with autism. Both of these individuals were more than happy to take part in helping us in our mission. And yet, it was still a long shot and we all knew it.
The rest was purely fate. How else could have my son Sam and I ended up standing in the very first row, about eight feet away and squarely in front of where the president was about to speak to a crowd of somewhere between three or four thousand people? Not to mention, this all took place in less than three days time.
So then what? Well, you stand and wait for a very long time in the hot sun, with not a cloud in the sky. The temp soared at over 90 degrees. It was an outdoor event. If you are Sam, your mom finds you a little shade by way of a nearby tree here and there where she can still keep an eye on you while allowing you some relief from the heat and a place to sit. She also allows you to bring your iPad and two very small, not sharp, nor intimidating, nor intrusive toys to occupy some of your very long wait time.
Long and grueling? No, although it could have been. The entire experience was by far too exciting, compelling, insightful and fascinating to be anything other than phenomenal! The people we met, the conversations we engaged in, the kindness of strangers, the swelling crowd, the speeches we heard (and we lean right, yet I was able to find substance, unity and even common ground), the motorcade, secret service, the anticipation, and then the presence of our commander and chief. I can't describe the enormity of it all! I can say that I walked away feeling especially blessed having had the experience at all!
After reciting the pledge of allegiance to our flag, a prayer from a minister, the national anthem, the mayor, several speeches by locals, rules and instructions as placed forth by the president's secret service detail, introductions and of course the man of the hour, our president; after all of that, he made his way past the media, toward us rounding his way along the railing that separated us from him. I repeatedly prepared Sam, "Get ready. Here he comes. Know what you want to say to him. Be ready."
As he neared us, I was practically dumbfounded that here we were, about to meet our president. Once he reached us, I instructed Sam, "Tell the president what you have to say." Sam began to speak. There were a lot of people. It was busy. It was loud. The president leaned closer, completely engaged in what Sam had to say to him. To say I was impressed in his sincerity in hearing Sam's message would not serve the moment due justice. I was in absolute awe at the amount of time he spent with this one child. Sam told his president his name and age. He made sure President Obama knew he was honored to meet him. He then asked President Obama if he would please join him in standing up for people with autism. He further explained that he himself stands up for people with autism because he has autism, and although he is able to speak for himself, too many people with autism are not and someone needs to stand up for them as well. The presidents reply? "Sam, I will gladly stand up with you for people with autism. As a matter of fact, I had already planned to stand up for those who have autism. Autism is an enormous issue and I have a plan." He thanked Sam for his courage in standing up for something he cares about as well as for taking the time to come and see him in person to deliver his message face to face.
Are you crying yet? I still do every time I think about it.
I quickly extended my hand. As President Obama embrace it, I looked him squarely in the eye and simply said, "Thank you." He nodded in affirmation replying, "Thank you and God bless you."
And thus ends a day with the president of the United States of America, the experience of a lifetime! A memory I shall forever hold near and dear to my heart. I am so grateful to so many people who had a hand in clearing a pathway that we might be so blessed as to carry a message to our president on behalf of those who have autism as well as those who love and care for them. I don't know as though I can properly convey our gratitude and our gratefulness to each of you as you too have a hand in this. You and your loved ones with with autism keep us going even though you may not know it. You drive us to do our very best in reaching out to others, in reaching as many as possible. You give us the strength to carry on even in our darkest hour. Thank you seems hardly enough. Yet it is all I have to offer. So, from the very bottom of our hearts, THANK YOU!
I've learned a thing or two on our journey to affect change. I've learned to always remember who is in my address book and why. I've learned to not be shy and ask them for help when they might be able to do just that. More times than not, they are ready, willing and able! I've learned to not always take things at face value and to ask a lot of questions. I've learned to be politely forceful when necessary, not take no for answer, to find another way when necessary, to ALWAYS remain calm, cordial and respectful. Above all else and by all means, don't burn any bridges!
I've learned to talk with Sam and try my best to prepare him every step of the way. I've learned how to keep him most comfortable in most any situation. I have learned that he can do most anything his heart desires despite the challenges his autism presents him with. I have learned that our endeavors are awakening in him character, compassion, integrity and substance.
Sam has progressed, grown and learned much, much more than we could have ever imagined for him in this amazing adventure as well. He has learned that he can be a voice for himself and others. He has learned that he has the RIGHT to stand up for himself and others. He has learned that hard work, tenacity and due diligence pays. He has learned that politics matter. He has learned to speak out, speak up, say what he thinks and feels and make it count! He has learned to stand up and be counted!! He has also learned that in America, you can dream to one day meet your president because that dream very well may come true.
Perhaps most pertinently, WE have learned that despite some dark, discouraging days, we by far still live in the greatest nation on the face of our Earth, OUR United States of America.
Ron Paul holding Sam's shirt.
Sam and Herman Cain
Sam and Michelle Bachman
Sam with Rick Santorum and Alison Dreke
Sam with Tim Pawlenty
Sam with Romney (Photo by Brian Snyder for Reuters)
Lin Wessels, her husband Mark and son Sam are just average everyday Americans whose lives were forever changed by autism. They now campaign to affect change on behalf of all families affected by autism, because it could too easily happen to you too.