It started with a heartbreaking viral Facebook post urging other parents to teach their kids about differences. Now, Arizona mom Stacey Gagnon is using her spotlight to create hope and friendship among special-needs children around the world.
In July, Gagnon posted a Facebook message about how her 9-year-old son, Joel, born with a congenital birth defect, was “broken-hearted” after they visited a new church and the other kids became quiet and stared or pointed. The Camp Verde, Ariz., mom explained that she wasn’t angry, but hurt.
Sharing, not shaming
Gagnon, a former teacher, used the post as a powerful teachable moment.
The mother of seven — five with special needs who were adopted — didn’t shame the parents or children. “These weren’t bad kids,” she wrote. Instead, she encouraged parents to show their kids pictures of “people with different colored skin, different eyes, different abilities to talk, walkers to walk, wheelchairs to roll.
“Show them children with no hair, without an ear, without an arm. Take a moment and share all kinds of different. Now teach your child that a beautiful person is found with the heart; not the eyes.”
The post has received more than 24,000 shares, almost 3,000 comments and 27,000 reactions.
Gagnon, a nurse who supervises the care of special-needs children, recently returned from Bulgaria, where she trained staff to work with families who wanted to raise special-needs kids.
In Bulgaria, she said, doctors encourage parents with children born with special needs to be institutionalized.
Gagnon and her husband discussed the viral Facebook post and the trip to Bulgaria, and agreed “it’s great to live in America.”
“Several of my kids wouldn’t have been accepted. They would have been institutionalized there. So it’s really interesting to see the support and love in our country.”
A new platform: #joelsfriends
The mom took the platform her post created and used it to connect parents and special-needs children from around the world. Using the hashtag #joelsfriends, parents and kids can look through the pictures and moving stories of other kids with special needs.
Gagnon began the Facebook post explaining Joel’s condition.
“He was born with Goldenhar syndrome. This means that he looks a bit different because he does not have a right ear. He has had lots of surgeries, and he will have some more. One day he will have a surgery to put on an ear. He also wears a hearing aide and glasses.
“Joel loves Dodge Ram trucks, Minecraft, and building forts. He does not like broccoli but he loves hamburgers and ice cream.”
She also shared that even her own children, even those who look different, had to be taught how to approach the differences. “My children who look different and are often stared at, were doing the same to someone else,” she wrote.
Other parents have introduced their children.
Zahari, an 11-year-old who has retinopathy. “He was born in Bulgaria and spent 8 years in a horrible orphanage. …He (is) non-verbal but speaks with the cards around his belt. He is super awesome and loves annoying his sister, climbing, playing at the playground and riding in the car. He also loves straws.”
Sean, born with “oculocutaneous albinism. He has little to no pigment in his skin, hair and eyes and is legally blind as a result. He’ll be a first grader. He’s a smart cookie who LOVES the beach, Minecraft, and jumping on the trampoline. He asked me yesterday for the first time why he’s so pale.”
Mariana, 10, who was born “10 weeks early and had a cardiac arrest after birth and a stroke. She is happy, healthy and so much fun. She sees beauty in everyone. She loves Joel as do I. Stacey, your life and ministry is an inspiration to us!”
Gagnon hasn’t discussed in-depth with Joel the attention her post about him has garnered. He would be embarrassed, she said. But she has shared the response from #joelsfriends. Several parents have shared his story with their children and requested to be his pen pal. The pen pal requests come from the other side of the country, Australia, France and China.
“He thought that was pretty cool.”
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