What is a legacy?

Legacy Tree PhotoIn this post-modern, existential age, it can cause some to wonder what’s the point of anything. How can we say anything we do truly matters? Well, on Monday, we said goodbye to a lady whose actions many families would say mattered to them.

When our daughter was born, we discovered many serendipitous things. While we were dealing with the diagnosis of Down syndrome, we learned that our next door neighbor was a special education teacher at our local elementary school; our neighbor  three doors down was the speech therapist there; and, that that school had a special program for children with Down syndrome. In the midst of the standard wondering of “why” about Down syndrome for us and our daughter, we also were struck with wondering “why” we just happened to be surrounded by all of these resources that we would need for our daughter.

The special program was run for years by Jean Bryson, who passed away on Valentine’s Day at age 72. Her funeral was this Monday.

Jean began her professional life as a nurse, but felt called to teach. Jean was also a mother, and her son was born with Down syndrome. She began as an aide in a special education classroom while pursuing her own teaching degree. She went on to lead a program that was unique for its time and one that would touch so many lives throughout the years.

A group of committed parents in the late-’70’s determined that if our state government and local school system would not offer the early intervention programming their children with Down syndrome needed, they would figure out a way for it to be provided anyways. These parents worked with the school system and raised funds to provide for an early education class for their children with Down syndrome. Jean would go on to lead that program into the early 2000’s before retiring after being diagnosed with her first bout of breast cancer–the disease that ultimately claimed her life, but not before Jean beat it twice over.

For years, Jean raised the money to pay for her salary. The program was fortunate in being provided space in the elementary school that would be my daughter’s home school. By the time of her birth, the program had since moved, but we did not know that. We were comforted knowing that such a program existed. Our daughter would go on to actively attend that program, from which she gained the skills to prepare her to enter kindergarten, and where my wife and I made many friends with fellow parents.

Within a year of my daughter being born, I was invited to serve on the board of our local Down syndrome support organization. For my first few years, Jean maintained her seat on the board before taking emeritus status. The  organization had grown out of that committed band of parents to support, in the beginning, the early education program. It now provides programming in two states across the entire lifespan of individuals with Down syndrome. I have been honored to serve as Board President, finishing my second, and last year. This week, at the Down Syndrome Affiliates in Action conference, our executive director and I will present on how the organization grew to having a $1+ million budget and paid staff of over 25, in the hopes that our programming may inspire other groups around the nation to experience similar growth.

I expect that none of this could have been envisioned when Jean started working over three decades ago. How could it, when she had to raise her own salary through raffles, bake sales, and car washes? Nor could Jean have ever known that a program she had retired from would still give a family hope when their daughter was born. And, if other organizations begin providing their own programming after our presentation this week, the fruit of Jean’s work will continue to grow.

We never know how our actions may touch the lives of others. Jean’s touched many, and many more than she could ever possibly know. Her work provided hope and a future for so many families. That matters. A lot. Jean Bryson, RIP.

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