I grew up in a place in Oregon where it was 55 miles to the nearest grocery store (one way). The graduating classes at my high school averaged 20 students, and no “special” room existed for “those kids.” My classmates were like siblings to me, many with whom I had attended Kindergarten through senior year. No matter what background, ethnicity, or socio-economic level you were, we all grew up together and got along! We didn’t really seem to notice each other’s differences or diverse abilities. After high school, I moved into an urban area in Oregon, attended college, and found a job. Eventually, I moved to an area that was a bit more like my childhood home, i.e., more rural.
Fast forward to 2003, when my husband and I had our daughter in this new area we called home. She was beautiful and what we wanted to balance out our family that already included two boys. Within two hours, we were informed that “she had some special challenges ahead of her,” and that she had Down syndrome, an atrial septal defect, left ventrical to right aorta shunt, and transit leukemia.
I can remember my reaction: “WAIT! What does that mean??” All sorts of questions crossed our minds: “Do we have what it takes to care for her?” “Does one of us need to quit our career to care for her?” “Do we need to move back to an urban area so she can have the best doctors and services they keep talking about?”
After a few months of processing, many doctor appointments, and connecting with other families, we made the decision to stay put. The encouragement and support other families gave us led to the establishment of a parent group that grew and grew… That parent group, Central Oregon Disability Support Network, is now the Family Network serving families like mine that enjoy living in a rural community.
As our daughter grows older, we often compare the difference of services for our daughter in our rural community to those of friends who live in more urban areas. The difference in our rural setting is the amazing friendships and partnerships we make with families and “agencies” alike: everyone works together for families and kids with all needs. Smaller communities often see people for who they are vs. who they are NOT; in other words, more for their assets vs. their deficits.
Today, our daughter attends her community school in third grade with her peers. She takes a dance class on Wednesdays, attends Campfire Kids on Thursdays, skis every Sunday, and enjoys anything she chooses. Her peers are her natural supports, and they don’t even know it! They are much like my peers at her age, i.e., like siblings. Like me, she will grow up in a more rural landscape and will reap the benefits of a small community. Sure, some may think that larger urban areas have better doctors, therapists, or opportunities, but really, what matters? To us, it’s the community we have in our rural town.
Dianna J. Hansen is the co-founder and executive director of Central Oregon Disability Support Network and FACT’s PTI Program Coordinator for Central Oregon. When she’s not connecting with families experiencing disability, she enjoys skydiving, horseback riding, hiking, traveling, and spending time with family.