When her son with special needs was not invited to a classmate's birthday party, a Canadian mom wrote a powerful letter to educate the world about inclusion.
Jennifer Kiss-Engele, whose 8-year-old son Sawyer has Down syndrome, was heartbroken to learn that her little boy was the only child in his class who did not receive an invitation to a fellow student's birthday party.
On Thursday, the mom posted an open letter on Facebook addressed to "the parent that thought it was OK to invite the entire class to their child's birthday except for my son."
Noting that the other 22 students in the class received invitations and that Sawyer's exclusion was intentional, Kiss-Engele's letter explores the reason he was left out.
"I know it’s not because he’s mean, you couldn’t meet a happier child," she wrote. "I know it’s not because he’s not fun, he has a great sense of humour and an infectious laugh. I know it’s not because your child and him don’t get along, he’s brought up your child’s name on several occasions."
"The only reason why you decided it was OK to not invite my son to your child’s birthday party is because he has Down syndrome," she said.
The mom used her letter to clear up some misconceptions about people with Down syndrome. She explained:
"You see, having Down Syndrome doesn’t mean that you don’t want to have friends. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have feelings. It doesn’t mean you don’t like to go to birthday parties. People with Down Syndrome want the same things that you and I want. They want to have close relationships, they want to feel love, they want to contribute, they want to have meaningful lives, and they want to go to birthday parties. It may be more difficult at times to understand my child. But the laughter and love that you share doesn’t need interpretation."
Kiss-Engele added that she was once "scared, uncertain and misinformed" about Down syndrome, and that she used to worry Sawyer wouldn't be able to connect with his siblings. But she was wrong, she said. Having Sawyer as a brother has taught them to have compassion and understanding, and he is one of their best friends.
Acknowledging that perhaps Sawyer's classmate didn't want him at his birthday party, the mom wrote to the other parent, "I know it can be difficult to teach our children about something we may not understand ourselves ... But this is a great opportunity and life lesson to have with your child. They will remember the time that their parent said to them, it’s not OK to leave someone out because of their disability, race, or gender."
Realizing that Sawyer hasn't been invited to many birthday parties this year, Kiss-Engele said she regrets not talking to his class about Down syndrome, as other parents of children with special needs do. "I realize that it’s my obligation as his parent and advocate to educate people more about what it means to have Down Syndrome and how they are more like you than different," she wrote. "I now know how important it is to talk about it and it’s something I am committed to doing a better job of."
The mom concluded her letter with an offer to talk about her son and this incident. "I may be a mama bear but I am not a scary person," she wrote, adding, "I recognize that we all make mistakes and at the end of the day, I think we both could have done better."
Kiss-Engele's open letter post received over 20,000 likes on Facebook, and the comments section is filled with messages of empathy and stories from other parents of children with special needs. The post was shared widely, and the mom appeared on CTV News with her family to talk about the "teachable moment."
In an update to the post, the mom said this story has a "happy ending." After the addressed parent read the letter and had a conversation with their child, Sawyer received a special invitation to the birthday party.
"Of course he's been beaming ever since and can't stop talking about it," Kiss-Engele wrote.
"I'm really proud that my letter has reached so many people because it's not just this birthday party and it's not just Sawyer," she added. "There are so many kids with special needs (and without of course) that just don't make the cut."
An important reminder about the power of inclusion.