At President Obama’s final state dinner in October, one guest beamed more than any other – my son Andrew. Three days earlier the invitation had 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, and he quickly invited me to be his guest.
We instantly felt a deep responsibility to represent thousands of families, from New York and California to North Dakota and Mississippi. Urban and rural alike. Families involved in Special Olympics. Families created by adoption or foster care. Those living with the effects of early trauma or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Those different from the norm – whether led by gay or straight parents.
But all desperately needing a voice.
In other words, liberty without a commitment to equality can leave many 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.” – Jefferson Smith
It is 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.
No doubt, personal stories can drive public policy – the well-intentioned, inclusive kind.
A brief window in between meetings allowed a jogging tour of many monuments. “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 too. Dozens of handshakes and personal greetings. After patiently waiting for an opening, Andrew extended his hand to Jerry Seinfeld. What a wonderful man who listened to us – 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 refused to take the time.
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.” A photographer caught the magic of the moment.
In turn, the president 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.” Then came the President’s heartfelt response to me: “Good job, Dad.” Clearly, he got it.
After an elegant dinner and a 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. When the last businessman was about to part ways 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.
On our final morning, we advocated on Capitol Hill. Although Indiana’s U.S. Senator Joe Donnelly and U.S. Representative Susan Brooks represent different political parties, both their staffs took an interest in the issues affecting Andrew and families like mine.
Without question, we all have more in common than many people are willing to admit. Because we do. Perhaps a shift in thinking requires someone like Andrew to keep the conversation focused. Courteous. And real. No sides. Just one country. Building bridges to unite one another.
Republished with minor changes from Craig Peterson’s blog.
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