Melina and Rachel had never met in person. Melina lives in the Chicago suburbs. Rachel is a Sassy Midwest Southern Gal (that’s a transplant from Memphis) living in the suburbs of Kansas City. Melina is Jewish. Rachel is Christian. Both love to dance, love friends, family and their dogs! Still, the chances of the two of their lives intertwining were pretty slim. Melina chose Down syndrome for her “mitzvah” project. That’s where it all becomes interesting.
Melina’s mom and Rachel’s dad work for the same company, Sedgwick. We love Sedgwick. In 1998 we moved to Memphis for Jonathan (Rachel’s dad) to work for Sedgwick. Sedgwick took care of us when Rachel was born and when Jonathan had cancer. They continued to love and support us and became a strong community supporter of our work on behalf of individuals with Down syndrome and other disabilities. The company and the people. The people make the company and they feel a lot like extended family to us. That is a big part of the reason that when given the opportunity, Jonathan went back to work for Sedgwick. Because Rachel’s dad and Melina’s mom work together, Melina saw pictures of Rachel and posts about Rachel on Facebook. She saw Just Like You – Down Syndrome. She chose Down Syndrome Awareness and specifically participation in and raising money through a local Buddy Walk as her mitzvah. She wanted Rachel to come and be a part.
The basis of my knowledge about Judaism is my own Christian faith. I do have several good friends who are Jewish and called on them for advice so we could be an appropriate part of this celebration. We learned that a mitzvah is a meritorious or charitable act and Melina and her family wanted this to be a focus of her “coming of age” bat mitzvah. In the Jewish faith boys have a bar mitzvah and girls a bat mitzvah when they turn 13 (or for girls this is sometimes at age 12.) In this process they study their religion and become responsible for keeping the commandments of the Torah. We were so touched by Melina choosing Down syndrome and inviting us to participate so off to Chicago we went. A flight delay caused us to miss the synagogue service but we made it for the bat mitzvah celebration party and a party it was!
In addition to a ton of food, activities and some symbolic acts, Melina chose to show Just Like You – Down Syndrome and to allow Rachel to say a few words. The event was lively and loud but when they showed the video and Rachel spoke, everyone was quiet and respectful. Rachel did a great job with her short speech. Melina and her parents did a lovely job of inviting folks to participate with them in learning about Down syndrome, becoming friends with someone with Down syndrome and making a difference by walking in the local Buddy Walk. Grown men were wiping tears from their eyes as were teenaged boys. Teenaged boys who went to Melina’s mom and said “I want to be a part.” We missed the synagogue service but Melina’s mom told me they had the same reaction there. I was touched and impressed.
While I was touched and I am impressed that Melina would make this such a focal point, let me tell you what I was equally impressed with: Inclusion. We told Rachel before the event that Melina would be busy with her close friends and family who were there to celebrate with her. We explained that she would be torn in many directions. Melina was very gracious as she was being pulled in many directions. And so were her friends. Melina invited Rachel to sit at her VIP table. We observed Melina’s friends inviting Rachel to dance and make her graphic sweatpants and perfume. We observed teenaged boys talking to Rachel and including her in the group dancing.
In Rachel’s speech she said, “It makes my heart happy that Melina chose Down syndrome as part of her mitzvah. I have Down syndrome and I Love My Life. We are going to watch my video Just Like You – Down Syndrome. You will see that I am Just Like You.” Several people told me how they loved her line about loving her life and what a great message that is to teenagers and adults alike. I met a speech therapist and a doctor who want to show Just Like You to groups. We are beyond honored and humbled to have been a part of this celebration.
Two girls from very different worlds and a host of people brought together because one is Jewish and one has Down syndrome. Now who knows how many people will see the abilities of people with Down syndrome. Thank you to Melina and her family for making this happen. That’s a mitzvah!
NOTE: My apologies if I have any information regarding the Jewish religion or the bat and bar mitzvah incorrect. I did try to be as accurate as possible.