At President Obama’s final State Dinner in October 2016, one guest beamed more than any other – my son Andrew.
Three days earlier the invitation arrived – setting off a whirlwind. With a commitment to a truly representative guest list, Mrs. Obama’s office had requested profiles of Special Olympics athletes from around the country.
Andrew topped the list – quickly inviting me, his strongest advocate, to be his guest.
Instantly we felt a deep responsibility to represent thousands of families – from New York and California to North Dakota and Mississippi. Urban and rural alike.
Those families involved in Special Olympics. Those dealing with adoption or foster care. Those enduring with the effects of early trauma, Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) or other brain disorders. Those different from the norm – whether led by gay or straight parents.
All desperately needing a voice.
In other words, liberty – without equality and a commitment to ongoing, appropriate services – can leave many with disabilities on the sidelines of democracy. And like Jimmy Stewart’s wholesome and innocent character in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, my Mr. Peterson had a tremendous opportunity.
Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right there; you just have to see them again.
It’s a timeless vision that Andrew could easily share. His infectious smile blazing a trail for his passion and authenticity.
Once our plane landed, we hit the ground running – with visits to Special Olympics International and the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS).
No doubt, personal stories can drive public policy – the well-intentioned, inclusive kind.
A window in between meetings allowed a jogging tour of many monuments. American history in motion. Civil War. Civil Rights.
“Run, Andrew, Run.” You matter too!
Then our six-hour celebration at the White House began.
First was a reception in the East Room with many celebrities and ordinary folks like us. Dozens of handshakes and personal greetings.
After patiently waiting for an opening and respecting boundaries, Andrew extended his hand to Jerry Seinfeld. What a wonderful man who listened – while learning about the power of laughter in a “trauma home.”
Andrew talking about the “Soup Nazi” will do just that.
Yet several well-known faces didn’t respond in like manner. More work obviously needs to be done. We refuse to be invisible.
Finally the receiving line in the Yellow Room. My son spoke from the heart while introducing himself to President Obama.
“Andrew Peterson, Special Olympics track athlete from Indiana. Thank you for being a role model.” And a photographer caught the magic of the moment.
President Obama, in turn, put his arm around my son and introduced him to the leader of Italy. “Prime Minister Matteo, I would like you to meet Andrew Peterson, one of our most accomplished Special Olympics athletes.”
Thereafter came the President’s heartfelt response to me, “Good job, Dad.” Clearly, he got it.
After an elegant dinner and live performance from Gwen Stefani, we dashed again to catch the last subway of the evening – like Cinderella leaving the ball. Three businessmen on the train couldn’t help seeing Andrew’s glow. They asked him to share every detail of the evening – which he did to the best of his ability.
Upon parting ways with the final man in front of his hotel, he asked to take our picture. Sharing our chance encounter with his family back in California had become very important to him.
At the end of the day, stories matter.
During our final morning, we advocated on Capitol Hill. Although Indiana’s U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly and our U.S. Representative Susan Brooks represent different political parties, their staffs both took interest in the issues affecting Andrew – and countless families like mine. Medicaid. Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). And more.
Without question, we all have more in common than many people are willing to admit.
Because we do.
A slight yet critical shift in thinking takes someone like an “Andrew” to keep the conversation focused. Courteous. Diplomatic. Sustained. Real.
No sides. Just one amazing country, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office.
Building bridges to unite one another. DCP
Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE
To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love
To follow my son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page Andrew Peterson Goes for the Gold