We have participated in a Kwanzaa celebration annually for about 15 years now. Our cousins Veldon and LaKicia Sallee have led the annual gathering of family and friends each year, and its a family celebration that everyone looks forward to each year.
Kwanzaa is a cultural celebration of African family, community and culture. It celebrates values like faith, self-determination, responsibility and creativity. And for us, its a time when everyone focuses on lifting up family members – recognizing their progress, their accomplishments, remembering our elders and those that have left this world, and offering words of encouragement and wisdom to the children of the family.
Here’s a link to read more about the 7 principles that Kwanzaa celebrates.
Each year, one part of the program is a Rite of Passage, where we honor, recognize and celebrate the youth in our family that have reached 13 years of age. We celebrate their character, their gift, their accomplishments, and both their parents and extended family members of all ages offer them words of advice to carry into their journey through the challenging teen years ahead and onto adulthood. Today it was Justin’s turn to be recognized and honored.
And our challenge tonight – Bryce’s and mine – was to try to sum up the life and character of this amazing little guy who has touched our lives and changed us as people and as parents in so many ways. He is so many things, and not defined by any one of them. He has autism, but is not defined by it. He also loves running, Tae Kwon Do, Legos, and movies. He’s silly, a movie buff, wears pajamas whenever humanly possible.
And he has come so very far …
Academically, I remember back to around 5 years old, when he was just beginning to really speak in sentences. To 7 or 8, when speech therapy was having a big impact, and helping him communicate more effectively. To his years of occupational therapy to develop his fine and gross motor skills. I remember Miss Subha and his other wonderful Montessori teachers who worked so closely to draw him out, stretch and challenge him. Then his transition to a mainstream school and the wonderful teacher and administrators that showed caring and attention, and helped ensure that Justin had the supports he needed to thrive in that new setting. And sports – how running, swimming, stand-up paddling, and tae kwon do have given him confidence in his strength, endurance and physical abilities.
Socially, I remember the early days when he would stand at the edge of the playground and not approach the other kids, or the sensory issues that had him rolling up his pants and pushing up his sleeves, rotating between a small set of clothes that he was comfortable in. I smile when I think of his love of pajamas that has persisted even to this day- changing into them immediately when he returns home even still, no matter the time of day.
Justin has been blessed with a few close friends over the years. Best among them was Josh as the loving and giving big brother who he loved dearly. But beyond his brother, these friends have loved, accepted and been protective of Justin – as school play turned to visits and later to sleepovers. Friends like Michael and James and now Jacob who have helped him really develop socially and been wonderful friends to him. His friendships have been as much a part of his growth and development as the teachers and other adults.
During Kwanzaa, Bryce did a wonderful job describing Justin’s progress and work ethic and kindness.
And as the emotion welled up, I tried to to talk to the family about Justin’s positive approach to life and happy disposition. How throughout any challenge – academic/learning difficulties, social situations, disappointments or other difficulties – he always remains positive and optimistic. He shakes things off as best he can and tries again. And that constant flow of positive feeling is amazing and inspiring.
Justin receive many words of encouragement, praise and wisdom. We truly appreciate everyone that has encouraged him throughout his journey. He know he has many rooting for him! My father-in-law summed it up well at the end of the evening: Justin has a pure heart.
And that’s really what it comes down to. His heart is pure and vulnerable and open. We hope and pray that even as he grows, his resilience and positive spirit will continue on.
I am so grateful to be his Mom. Love you, Justin!