Planting Trees (Or How I Learned How to Plan for the Future)

Amberley, Caroline, and WillBy Amberley Romo

My family moved a handful of times when I was growing up. Every time we did, my parents would obsess over the trees. They’d discuss which kind of tree would be best-suited for where they wanted to plant, and, most importantly, the longevity of the tree. They were usually young trees. ‘They’ll grow,’ they said.  Even if we probably wouldn’t live there to see them mature, it was important to my mom and dad to leave deep, strong roots in the ground.

My younger sister Caroline was born with a neuro-genetic disorder called Angelman Syndrome. She’s nonverbal, but astoundingly effective at communicating with an assistive communication device, modified sign language, and, well, pointing. Before I went to college, being one of the roots in Caroline’s tree was just a normal part of my life. Although my parents encouraged me to go off to college where I wanted to—yes, even if that meant leaving Texas – I felt guilty and a bit selfish (‘I really only have to worry about myself now?’). I sought out work with organizations that served people with disabilities like Caroline’s. Now, I work for a national disability organization, but I’m still not home to help take care of my sister.

My parents always reassured me that they would take care of Caroline. They would make sure the necessary financial structure was in place, that, should anything happen to them, everything was prepared. ‘Take the pressure off yourself,’ they told me. How can I take the pressure off when I work down the hall from The Arc’s policy team? When I hear every day about the very real threats to supports and services for people like Caroline?

Amberley Romo 2In June, Caroline will turn 19. I am 22. We’re entering a new part of our lives. A part where I simply can’t assume everything will be taken care of anymore. Here comes the part where I have to know about SSI, and I need to know things like the fact that if an SSI/Medicaid beneficiary has more than $2,000 dollars in their name (whether via a thoughtful gift, or as a beneficiary in a will, savings, etc.) they can be disqualified from their benefits, and…and…and…

I went home two weekends ago to participate in our first-ever Person-Centered Planning meeting. I had never heard of Person-Centered Planning before, but my mother had found a facilitator and was convinced it needed to happen. It needs to be a celebration though, she said. This isn’t just a meeting. We want to make it a party. She fussed about buying favors for the guests, and festive cocktail napkins for the snacks. There was Tex-Mex.

And one by one, various people who are, or have been at some point, roots in Caroline’s life rang our doorbell. Her behavioral therapist, her cheerleading coach, a former school aide and frequent sitter, family members… Fourteen in all.

We introduced ourselves and milled about, strangers drawn around this one vibrant, 18-year-old focal point, and when called to order we drifted into the living room. Caroline waited in the living room the entire time, seated comfortably on a dining room chair placed front-and-center, legs crossed, hands clasped eagerly. We had worried that the situation might be over stimulating for her, that we might see some acting out. Not so. Yet again I underestimated her. She sat on her throne, grinning like the cat that ate the canary, soaking up every minute.

The concept of Person-Centered Planning is that by brainstorming with all of these different people, who all play different parts in Caroline’s life, we will together be able to form a more complete picture of who she is, and how to support her. We already know she tries to get away with things at home that she doesn’t at school and vice versa. (The girl does know how to work people with her smile). So the people who know her at school know a different side of her. (Any high school kid who acts the same way at home as they do at school, please stand up. No one? Moving on.)

For an hour and a half, we considered very deeply what makes Caroline who she is. What does she like and dislike? Who is important in her life? What are her strengths and skills? If someone didn’t know her, what would we think they needed to know in order to ensure continuity and satisfaction in her life? The planning conversation is not one that comes up lightly. My parents know they won’t be able to care for her forever. They’re teaching me that skill they learned long ago—how important it is to start early, to lay down deep, secure roots. I don’t like to think that things will ever change. I don’t like to think that they won’t be around, and I don’t like to think of Caroline living anywhere but with family. I’ve argued with them tearfully that it doesn’t matter where I am in my life or what I’m doing– when the time comes I’ll be her caregiver, I’ll always have enough to provide for her, I’ll do this, I’ll be that. But hoping for the best is not a plan. Even planning well doesn’t guarantee anything. In a world without guarantees it is crucial to plan so that Caroline can continue to blossom, and, to the best of her ability, always be included in decisions about her life.

There is no perfect time to plan. There’s no good time to confront your own mortality, or the other hard truths that necessitate future planning. As siblings, that relationship is often the longest we experience. We are an important and vital part of our siblings’ lives. We deserve to be a part of the process, and it’s vital that we start the hard conversations with our families, if they aren’t already happening.

National Siblings Day is a great day to stop for a minute to think about these things. Or, if not today, a birthday, or an anniversary– any milestone to attach this important conversation to. There will always be a reason to push it back, put it off. But it’s too important for that. We plant the trees so that, someday, there will be shade.

Amberley Romo currently works at The Arc’s Washington, D.C. office as brand coordinator. She is a member of The Arc’s National Siblings Council, and the DC-area chapter of the Sibling Leadership Network, DC Sibs.

My Brother, My Role Model

Jui and brother ChinmayBy Jui Agrawal, Guest Blogger

I am the lucky younger sister of Chinmay Khaladkar. When I think about him, I smile because of all the happy memories that he brings to mind. Whether it is his love for music, cars, travel or eggplant parmesan, he enriches my life beyond words. Having been born with Cerebral Palsy, and the complications that have accompanied his condition, he has unyielding optimism that makes me proud to be his sister.

My family has been lucky enough to travel extensively, expand our worldview and experience the cultures of many countries. However, the one journey that helped me grow the most has been at home, as I’ve watched my role model, my brother, grow and become the most loving and happiest of people.

Through Chinmay’s eyes you see a world where everyone is good and intentions are always pure. He has a way of talking to strangers, laughing at your most lame joke, and making long-lasting friendships. His celebrations always bring together his biggest fans, whether it’s his therapist of 30 years, friends from kindergarten, or family from across the country- a reminder of all the people he has touched with his love.

Over the years, as our family has celebrated Diwali, the Hindu new year, there is a ceremony when the brother gives the sister a gift as a token of appreciation. Chinmay, not having the ability to drive on his own and get me a present, has repeatedly put his paycheck in an envelope addressed to me in his scrawling letters- flooring me his gesture, and showing me the true meaning of selflessness.

Starting at a young age Chinmay has always been the one looking out for me.  Whether it was holding my scared small hand as we went into the darkened basement for a game of hide and seek, or coming to my defense when my parents were angry at me for missing curfew, he has always consoled and protected me, being a true protective older brother.

Jui Agrawal 2Despite our connection, we’ve shared the same problems that all siblings face- the squabbles, the jealousies and the competitions. Chinmay will never graduate from college or drive a car, and as I’ve hit these milestones throughout the years, he has had a hard time dealing with my moving on from our days of playing pretend. Though I have spread my proverbial wings, he feels as though I have left him behind in my journey- Chinmay, an eternal child at heart, will never fully understand that it is because of his love and support that I have learned to fly. For both of us.

As we journey through adulthood, I have become increasingly inspired by Chinmay and realized that I want to dedicate my career to the advocacy of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I know that without him, I would not see this extraordinary community as having the humility, grace, and determination that they embody.

Jui Agrawal is pursuing a Master in Public Policy degree at the Bloustein School for Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. She currently works at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development on campus assisting with research related to disability employment. Jui has spent time working in Washington, DC, both at the Pew Charitable Trusts and a boutique government relations firm focusing on environmental, tax, and health policy issues. Most recently, she has interned with The Arc of California and United Cerebral Policy, and will be joining The Arc’s national office in Washington, D.C. as the summer 2013 Paul Marchand intern.

Celebrating National Sibling Day with My Brother

By Kim Keprios, member of The Arc’s National Sibling Council and the Sibling Leadership Network

Kim Keprios and Family

Kim Keprios and her family share a day out on the water.

My brother Mike, “Kep” as I affectionately call him, is a man of tradition. As a family we are bound together by Kep’s desire to celebrate every Hallmark Greeting Card holiday ever invented. Add the National Sibling Day to our list of gatherings on the calendar that we will joyfully honor as a family this spring! National Sibling Day celebrates the unique bond between people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their brothers and sisters.

The Anchor

Mike has always brought our family together. He keeps us laughing, grounded, grateful and humble. Although he has a significant disability, Kep has been the anchor in our family. On rare occasions I have felt like he is a weight that ties me down when I yearn for the freedom to “leave home,” but mostly he is an anchor in the best sense of the word.

Kep led me to a career path I may otherwise never have pursued, or been afforded the opportunities I have had through my 30 years with The Arc Greater Twin Cities. At the core he is behind the passion and sense of urgency I bring to my work in advocacy with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.

Mike’s Little Sister

Now my beloved brother and I are on the official AARP membership rolls. Together we are experiencing the painful realities of getting older. Our dad died last September. The hole in my heart is huge, but it is magnified as I watch Kep struggle with the loss of “Daddy George.” At times he says quite calmly, “Daddy George is not here — he is in heaven.” But then there are the times when Kep is anxious, sad and announces “Oh, I miss Daddy so much.” As usual, he says it like it is — his grief is front and center.

For 55 years as Mike’s “little sister,” he has been teaching me how to live life — all of it. Our April family gatherings will reflect the joys and sorrows that come with a rich life – missing dad at our traditional Easter brunch, and celebrating National Sibling Day. My big brother will guide me through both with a grateful heart!

About Kim

Kim Keprios is a member of The Arc’s National Sibling Council and the Sibling Leadership Network. She has developed and implemented programs for kids and adults who are sibling of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities at The Arc Greater Twin Cities since 1990. Her brother, Michael George (Kep) Keprios, was born in 1955 without eyes with a diagnosis of severe intellectual and developmental disabilities. Advised by doctors to institutionalize Mike, his parents George and Dodie ignored the counsel and brought Mike home to be raised with his siblings. Today, the man who doctors said “would likely never walk or talk” loves to dance, works at Old Chicago Pizza, volunteers at The Arc’s Value Village Thrift Stores, enjoys going to church and loves Country Western concerts.