Last week we attended our first Reach Family Weekend. I’ve at last finished raving to my friends and family about what an amazing time we had, so I can now try and articulate some of my enthusiasm into a coherent blog post.
‘Fitting in’ is one of those things that has always eluded me, and I don’t even have any outwardly obvious differences (terrible dress sense and an obsession with Disney and dinosaurs aside, of course). Consequently Hero’s sense of belonging and of fitting in has always been incredibly important to me. Being a part of the Reach community is a huge element in my grand ‘Give Hero Self Confidence’ scheme and so far so good, it would seem.
I’m always pretty confident that wherever Hero is going, be that to nursery or to a class, she’ll stand out somewhat and be easily identifiable. Partly due to the inevitably outrageous outfits I put her in and the slightly left-field name we’ve given her, but also because of her hand. Dropping her off at the Reach crèche (run by the wonderful folk from Freedom Childcare) I realised that she wasn’t necessarily going to stand out today. She was instead joining a group of children just like her, in their own unique ways. She was going to fit right in. That realisation brought mixed feelings, and I started to recognise that a part of me actually loves the fact that she’s noticeably unique. Yet there’s the other part of me too, that just wants her to fit in.
Throughout the gala dinner she managed to chat up a fair few people, and not just the middle-aged males she usually likes to charm. She’s often drawn attention when we’re out in public and I have always assumed that people were interested because of her hand. I’ve wondered if people wanted to talk to her out of a well-intentioned pity. Yet this weekend people weren’t talking to her because she was different, because this weekend she wasn’t. They were talking to her because she has a beautiful personality (slightly biased parent here, naturally) and is engaged with those around her. It has absolutely nothing to do with her little hand and it’s been unjust of me to assume so. She’s so much more than her missing hand, as I’ve always known, but this weekend has taught me that actually everyone else sees beyond that too and that I need a little more faith in how the world views my daughter.
We’ve only been part of what many call their ‘Reach family’ for a year. I’m often a bit of a slow-burner when it comes to feeling accepted and like I’m really part of a group or a team. I’ve been known to be attending a club or activity for years and to still not feel like I’m really one of them. Yet, at the Reach gala dinner, surrounded by hundreds of people, many of whom I don’t even know, I’d never felt more like I belonged. I was chatting with amazingly talented professionals, paralympians and actresses, only to find that they were just as curious about my daughter and me as I was about them. I was sitting alongside families from my regional branch who I already call my friends and am happily able to meet up with throughout the year. I also made new friends from completely opposite sides of the country, although in fairness, most of these happy meetings were engineered by Hero accidentally wandering under people’s tables and needing to be retreived!
I recall vividly the days before we sent off our application to become Reach members. We were still pregnant and not really in a good place emotionally at all. I remember thinking how unlucky I was that the rest of my life was going to be tied to this charity, it felt unfair. Isn’t life funny; when some of your biggest misgivings can turn out to be your biggest blessings. I only wish that everyone had a community like this to be a part of. Somewhere they can feel confident, somewhere they can ask questions and somewhere they can just be welcomed with open arms and fit right in, regardless of background, outlook or feelings.
The first half of the day was spent in a conference hall, enjoying a number of different speakers. We heard from a hugely experienced plastic surgeon, Dr Ruth Lester, who’s helped us to understand the thought processes behind the appointments Hero’s had. I’ve mentioned before how disappointing we found Hero’s first meeting with the surgeon. While she couldn’t make up for his rudeness, Dr Lester did make sense of the outcome for us. We also met Sue Kent, a incredible lady who overcame intense prejudice to train as one of the first people in the world to be a qualified sports masseuse, using only her feet and who, despite everything, had the best sense of humour!
We also met with Orla Duncan, a psychosocial nurse who specialises in supporting children with a physical difference and their families. Orla gave parents tips on building children’s self esteem, which played right into the hands of ‘Operation Give Hero Self Confidence’. We heard from two different prosthetic makers, including the Team Umlimbited (of Shed of the Year fame) as well as Joel Gibbard from Open Bionics, who’re making the most astounding prosthetic hands at the opposite end of the spectrum. According to Joel from Open Bionics, there’s a very real possibility that by the time she’s twenty years’ old, Hero could have a bionic hand that functions entirely as a human hand would. If there was ever a time to be born with a limb difference, now would be it. Early enough to be able to watch this astounding technology develop, but young enough to still benefit from it in the future. I look forward to the day when Hero can show off her phenomenal prosthetic hand to the envy of her peers!
Hearing from Paralympains and all-round lovely people, Hollie Arnold and Claire Cashmore, was wonderful. They were honest about the bad times, something I believe is essential to help people to understand and to accept their own emotional ups and downs in parenting a child with a difference or in living with a difference themselves. They didn’t shy away from mentioning the bullies, something I was incredibly grateful to them for. The idea of their children being bullied is a fear most parents share, even more so if your child has any kind of difference. We all know it happens, so why pretend that it doesn’t? But what came out of both women’s stories was the sheer, beautiful confidence they now have. They were rightfully proud of their achievements and they certainly aren’t stopping there. Being honest about the bad times they’d been through simply made their achievements all the more striking.
Having the opportunity to chat with them both afterwards, mostly on the dance floor in the evening, was brilliant; it made them real. Yes their achievements are extraordinary, but they are human none the less. I know that not everyone can be a Paralympian, and that might not be a path Hero even wants to contemplate (certainly not if she inherits her mother’s woeful sporting ability anyway!) but they proved that it is a goal that can be attained if she puts her mind to it. Hollie mentioned how she played almost every and any sport available to her at school, including hockey. I’ve mentioned before my husband’s love for hockey and so it was great to have the opportunity to ask Hollie how she got on and to ask how she adapted her arm to enable her to play. She laughed and told us that she’d never used an adaptation for hockey, she’d just grabbed the stick and smacked the ball. She didn’t care at all and if I take one thing away from the talks it’ll be that we probably shouldn’t care either!
We were also lucky enough to meet a stunning young lady called Melissa Johns, who was most recently seen acting in Coronation Street. Melissa’s confidence was phenomenal and she looked amazing up on the stage, so I was astounded to find out how hard-earned that confidence was and how she’d only very recently achieved it. People like Melissa, putting themselves out there and braving the gauntlet of rejection and prejudice, means that Hero will enjoy seeing role models and people just like her on the TV. I often go on about representation at Though She Be But Little, it’s something I’d never given much thought to before I’d had Hero. But my daughter and any child with a difference, be that a disability, their gender or their skin colour, should be able to see themselves out there in books and in the media. They shouldn’t have to feel like they don’t fit the mould. People like Hollie, Claire, Melissa, Sue and those like them, are all striving to achieve their own goals and in so doing are paving the way for the generations who’ll come after them and have their blazing trails to look up to and follow if they wish.
I should probably start wrapping things up here, but trust me, I could go on. This weekend we found solutions to problems we didn’t even know we might have, we found
out that Hero is blissfully normal within our Reach family and that we, and everything we feel, is normal too. We were star struck to meet such talented individuals and people from all walks of life, all blooming with so much hard-earned confidence. These young people, including a beautiful and articulate one-handed trainee teacher, the professionals, the sports stars and the actresses, are all Hero’s role models. They’re her peers and they’re people I’d be thrilled for her to look up to and to emulate. I can’t think of a better community to inspire, motivate and support our own little superhero as she grows.