Every parent dreams of having a healthy baby, but sometimes that just does not happen.
Tom and Sara Michael have learned all too well the challenges that go along with having a child with special needs. Their son Jeff, 22, was born with Down syndrome.
The family has also learned through the compassion of friends and family, that road can be made a little easier.
“We did not learn he had Downs until he was about 2 weeks old,” Sara Michael said. “Jeff was born 2 1/2 weeks early and came out very floppy and with low muscle tone. We knew then something was different, but did not know what it was. Our doctor was hesitant to say anything until he had positive proof of the diagnosis. A day or two after we left the hospital, we returned to have his blood drawn for DNA testing. It was going to take two weeks to get the results back.
“During that waiting period, Jeff became very jaundice,” she added. “We were referred to a pediatrician at Theda Clark. We were fortunate that on that day, there was a geneticist in from Madison who had a free appointment time available for us. He was the doctor who finally told us the diagnosis. He was able to point out all the symptoms to us and say that even without the DNA test back, he was 90 percent sure Jeff had Down syndrome.”
A lot of information was thrown at the Michael family in days that followed.
“There was a fear of the unknown and sadness,” Sara said. “It took some time to work through it all and decipher that this was not a death sentence for him, but just a change in the dreams we had for this child.”
“I cried right there in the geneticist’s office,” Tom said. “I was thinking about all the things I had done growing up, like learning to drive a car with my dad and it was the recognition that Jeff may never get to experience these same things that hit me hard. I settled into the realization that Jeff would not recognize that ‘loss’ that I perceived for him. He would experience different things on his own path in life and I would be there to help when some things would be out of his grasp.”
As Jeff grew up, Tom and Sara made the decision to treat him exactly like his brothers were treated. He was expected to follow the same rules, had a bedtime and even chores. His older brother, Ben, and younger brother, Danny, were his best friends and remain so today.
Known for his big heart, compassion for others and his love of Bon Jovi, it’s clear that Jeff leaves a mark on the lives of those who know him.
Graduating from Waupaca High School in May 2011, Jeff is now working Monday through Thursday at Waupaca County Industries in Manawa.
With working parents and brothers in college and jobs of their own, the question now facing the family was what to do with Jeff on Friday.
“Tom needed a place for Jeff to go because he doesn’t work his regular job on Fridays,” said Molly Vold, director of the Iola-Scandinavia Community Fitness & Aquatic Center. “He started coming to Kids Club in the summer of 2012. The kids accepted him immediately. He just fits right in with any age group.”
“When Kids Club was over, we all thought it would be a good idea to keep him coming here on Fridays,” Cheryl Ziemann said. “It was a place for him to go in trade for some extra help around the facility. He helps set up for parties, cleans the pool area, folds the football towels, dust-mops the gym floor and even volunteers at special events.”
Even the patrons have welcomed Jeff.
“I had seen Jeff sitting at the desk a few time when I would come in on Fridays to work out,” Chris Schwirtz said. “I finally asked, ‘Who is this guy?’ I said to him, ‘Instead of sitting here with all these women, why don’t you come and work out with me?’
“It’s been over a year since then,” he said. “Jeff does all the machines and rides the bikes. He is getting stronger and stronger. Heck, I think since he first started working out, he can lift about 50 pounds more on at least one of the machines. I now realize that I have a friend for the rest of my life and that is all right with me.”
Jeff and Schwirtz headed to the weight room for their workout. After their workout, Jeff came out with a big smile on his face, doing a jab move into the air, saying with excitement, “Hey Cheryl, wanna see my new moves?”
Proudly showing off the new karate kicks and punches he has learned, he is quick to gives credit to Schwirtz for his newfound talent.
As music starts to play on the TV in the background, Jeff quickly turns his karate tricks into dance moves. With the encouragement of Ziemann, Jeff busts a move, even spinning on his back on the floor while break dancing. Ziemann joins him dancing and the two share a laugh.
Patrons come and go from the facility and say, ‘Hi’ to the young man. Jeff greats each of them in return with a smile and sometimes a hug.
“Having Jeff here is a win-win for all of us,” Vold said. “He makes us smile and we feel good knowing he’s not sitting at home alone. We’d do anything for Jeff. He just fits in perfectly here.”
Tristan Klepps, 17, a lifeguard at the facility, could not agree more.
“Don’t judge people because they are different,” said Klepps, who has a 5-year-old autistic sister. “They really are not that different at all. And Jeff, he is a great guy.”
It’s not unusual to see Klepps chasing Jeff around in the pool playing tag in the afternoons. Klepps likes to help where he can and makes time to take Jeff swimming.
“When we are in the pool, Jeff always asks me to come over by him,” Klepps said. “I always think he is going to tell me something, but he dunks me every time.”
“He brings something special here, with his smile and positive attitude,” Vold said. “He’s like Norm on ‘Cheers.’ People are always happy to see him and wonder where he is when he’s not here.”
For the Michael family, there is peace of mind knowing Jeff is happy and safe each Friday.
“All the things that everyone has done for us at the Fitness Center, both staff and patrons, has been a tremendous blessing for Jeff and us,” Tom said. “We came to their door at a time of great personal need and everyone welcomed us with open arms. That is something I will always treasure. Acceptance for people with special needs and for their families is something we cherish. Having that embrace removes one hurdle from an otherwise challenging life.
“The Fitness Center has become a second home to Jeff, filled with family and friends,” he added. “His time there has drawn him into the Iola community. The most important thing of all, the friendships he has built there are priceless.”