During our recent stay in Colorado, my husband Larry and I hiked to Adam’s Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park. As we were finishing our walk, we saw a group of young adults with intellectual disabilities hiking up the trail. We learned later that they were on a field trip with Adam’s Camp, part of a non-profit organization which offers intensive therapy, family support, and recreation in a camp environment for children and youth with special needs.
Seeing the group brought me much joy. On that beautiful afternoon in Colorado, the campers were happy, glowing, involved. Less than fifty years ago, they would have had a good chance of being marginalized at best, institutionalized at worst. Claudia “Clyde” Lewis’ sister Andrea Gregg almost suffered that fate.
Clyde’s parents met in high school, and Clyde was born soon after graduation. Her father, Robert Pinard, went into the Navy and would never meet her until she was nineteen years old.
Her mother Iola married Arthur Gregg when Clyde was ten years old. Andrea was born two years later. Clyde, her mother, and step-father were delighted with the newest member of their New Hampshire family.
When Andrea was about six months old, the pediatrician recommended that Iola take Andrea to the Dartmouth Medical Center, citing ‘respiratory problems’ as the reason for the evaluation. “My mother recalled Andrea getting a great deal of attention,” said Clyde. “She thought it was because there was only one other baby on the medical center’s floor.”
Then the doctors gave Iola the life-changing news. “You realize that your little girl has Down syndrome, don’t you?” Predicting that Andrea would never walk, talk, or function normally, the doctors recommended placing Andrea in an institution and “forgetting about her.”
The devastated parents reached out to the family for help. Iola’s brother insisted that the family move near them in California, one of the few states at the time that offered special programs for children with intellectual disabilities. Iola and Arthur decided to make the move as soon as Clyde finished her school year in June.
Clyde’s parents didn’t share the news of Andrea’s condition with her until the family on their way to California. “It was the saddest car trip of my life,” said Clyde. “I cried the entire time, not able to accept that my beautiful little sister was different.”
Once the four of them settled in Santa Ana, however, Clyde didn’t let Andrea’s differences get in the way of loving her. She took her sister under her wing, mothering her and helping her learn to walk and talk. It changed Clyde’s outlook on life. “If you wanted to be my friend,” recalled Clyde,” you had to accept the fact that Andrea would be tagging along. She was my sidekick.”
Clyde also advocated for her sister when Andrea started special education classes. “Andrea was always bugging me when I was doing my homework,” said Clyde. “So I put up a chalkboard and started her on her ABC’s. Soon she was writing her own name and reading. I went to her teachers and showed them what she could do.” Andrea also learned to write in cursive, which she regarded as one of her greatest accomplishments. “She loved telling people she could sign her ‘John Hancock’” said Clyde.
Clyde graduated Santa Ana Valley High School in 1963 (a relatively unknown band, The Beach Boys, played at her senior prom) and enrolled in UC Fullerton. In her junior year, her birth father, Robert Pinard, connected with Clyde and asked her to come to Vermont that summer to meet him, his wife, and her seven half-sisters and brothers. Clyde agreed to go as long as she could also bring Andrea.
Robert owned and operated the ski shop/shoe store at Norwich University, a private military college. He asked Hal Lewis, one of the Cadres breaking in the incoming cadets to “watch out” for the daughter whom he had never met. “I fell in love with Clyde AND Andrea,” said Hal. After her college graduation, Clyde flew back East to attend Hal’s graduation. The two were married and settled in New Hampshire.
After she graduated from her special education program, Andrea worked different jobs at Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and a local supermarket. When Arthur retired, the three of them moved to Charlestown, New Hampshire to be closer to Clyde, Hal, and their support. Clyde would drive the six hour round trip from her home in Plainstov at least once a week to take them shopping and to doctors’ appointments.
Andrea enrolled in a sheltered workshop program. She also became involved in a local Special Olympics track and field program. Although she wasn’t good at the sport, her reading and writing skills made her an ideal “administrator” for the team. Her success in those duties resulted in her appointment to the board of the New Hampshire’s Governor’s Council for the Disabled. Once a month, she went to Concord to participate in the meeting and attend workshops on how to handle themselves and their interactions with others.
Both parents passed away by the time Andrea was forty-eight years, and she came to live with Clyde and Hal. They set her up in the lower level of their home in a area with her own private entrance that contained a bedroom, a room, and a kitchenette. Andrea was thrilled. “I never had my own apartment before!” she exclaimed.
Soon after her suitcases were unpacked, Andrea and Clyde made a trip to Walmart to buy needed items for her new “apartment.” After trips through all the aisles, they headed to the check-out line with a shopping cart filled with kitchen items, towels, and bedding. Suddenly, two women pushed in front of Andrea with their cart.
“Move your fat ass,” one of the women told Andrea.
“What did you say to me?” she demanded.
“You heard her,” the second woman said. “She said, ‘Move your fat ass!’”
Andrea pulled herself up to her full five foot height. “People see my disability when they look at me,” Andrea said loudly. “People can see YOUR disability when you open your mouth!”
As the two women deserted their cart and slunk away, the people waiting in line burst into applause and cheers.
Clyde beamed with pride. “I guess you can take care of yourself.” she said.
“And I guess those advocacy classes are finally paying off!” said Andrea.
Andrea lived with Clyde and Hal until her death at 53 from heart disease, a complication of her Down syndrome. Clyde keeps a picture on her refrigerator of her beloved sister. They are standing together, with their arms around each other, smiling broadly. “She will always be with me in my heart,” said Clyde.
Scott Hamilton, the Olympic skater said, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” Thanks to advances in public education, the intellectually challenged have opportunities to reach their full potential. Thanks to programs like Adam’s Camp and Special Olympics, these same individuals have opportunities for recreation and personal fulfillment. And thanks to people like Andrea, Clyde, and her family, we all are made aware that every individual—no matter what their challenges—can offer much to our world.