Family Displaced by Hurricane Katrina Finds New Community in Texas Special Olympics | Our America: Fifty 50

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DEER PARK, Texas — Brenda and Rick Spencer discovered their daughter Ainsley, now 30, had Down syndrome the day she was born.

They called it “one of the hardest days of our lives”, remembering feelings of anxiety at not being able to see their baby until 14 hours after birth. Ainsley spent 10 days in the NICU before her parents were finally able to bring her home.

They explained that the early years of Ainsley’s life were difficult due to a number of medical issues. She had holes in her heart, digestive issues and low muscle tone. Ainsley’s parents say she didn’t start walking until she was almost 3 years old.

“We were determined not to treat her differently,” said Rick Spencer. “We spoke to her like anyone else. We didn’t use simple words for her, just so she could be the best she could be. Although she knows she’s different, she also knows that she is very special.”

The obstacles for the Spencer family didn’t end there: living in New Orleans at the time, they were among the one million people displaced by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

“We evacuated the day before Katrina arrived, but we had no idea it was going to be permanent,” they said. “Our son was in the first year of high school and Ainsley was in the ninth year. It was a traumatic experience for them.”

“It left us homeless for about six months. We really didn’t know what we were going to do. Being homeless is really hard on a family,” Ainsley said. “I was sad that we were leaving. It was hard for me to leave my friends and school behind. My biggest fear of going to a new place is knowing people and hoping that they will like my way to be and my appearance.”

The Spencers returned home to Louisiana for a few months after the storm, but said the fallout from the hurricane was more severe than they had anticipated.

“The main thing was medical care. In those days in New Orleans, if you went to the emergency room, you might be able to see a doctor in four days. We were concerned that if Ainsley had a medical problem, she wouldn’t be to be able to be taken care of. That’s when we started to think maybe this wasn’t the right place for us anymore,” they said.

What sealed the deal was that Rick’s employer offered to move his family to Deer Park, Texas, outside of Houston. Little did they know that this decision would open a new chapter in Ainsley’s life.

There, Brenda and Rick met a woman at a local park who encouraged them to enroll Ainsley on her high school’s Special Olympics team.

“We listened, and it’s been a busy 15 [to] 16 years since,” Rick said.

“It really changed my life,” Ainsley added. “It was a place where people like me could just be ourselves and not be judged on their disability or skill level. Special Olympics means everything to me. They’re like a big family to me.”

Ainsley plays a handful of sports including basketball, volleyball, tennis, pétanque and bowling. Brenda said she takes every competition very seriously and loves collecting medals. She won gold twice at national bocce games in Seattle and New Jersey.

“When I see Ainsley I’m so proud of everything she’s done. I get very emotional but it’s just because of the love I have for her and the way she touched my parenthood,” Rick said. “Never despise someone because they are different from you.”

Brenda said she loves how Special Olympics helps debunk myths and misconceptions about people with special needs.

“She’ll wear her medal after a competition at church or when we go out to eat. Sometimes someone who doesn’t know Special Olympics will walk up to her and say, ‘What is this? ‘ I think that helps a lot of people realize, “Wow. She can do all that,” Brenda said. “Someone once asked us, ‘If you had the ability to take Down syndrome away from him, would you do it?’ I don’t think we would because that’s what makes her Ainsley.”

Earlier this month, his volleyball team, the Deer Park Fireballs, competed in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games at Walt Disney World. Ainsley’s teammate Allyson Combs and coach Mary Ann Fox said the Fireballs are a “unified” co-ed team, meaning it consists of athletes who have and don’t have special needs.

“Ainsley is one of a kind. She’s got a great personality. She’s got a lot of guts and she’s very competitive,” Fox said.

As the 50th anniversary of Title IX approaches, the Spencers have reflected on this monumental piece of civil rights legislation and the impact it has had on Ainsley’s life.

“Title IX is about empowering people to do what they want to do and be the best they can be, regardless of their situation, background or identity. When you look at Ainsley, she has so many opportunities that wasn’t available 50 years ago before Title IX,” Rick said. “A lot of people with Down syndrome back then were placed in group homes, and the value they brought to society was not recognized.”

“I don’t think it crosses Ainsley’s mind that there was a time when she wouldn’t have been allowed to participate in any sporting activity because of her gender or disability. In her world, she never had to deal with that. Thank goodness,” Brenda added.

More importantly, the Spencers said Special Olympics provided them with a new home, a new family and a new community in Texas.

“When we started, we didn’t think it would be a lifelong thing like it turned out to be,” Rick said. “We thought we would stop doing it once she was older. But now we can’t imagine our life without Special Olympics. It’s an essential part of our life. We’re going to do it until what we physically can no longer.” .”

“I want to keep playing sports. I want to help with Special Olympics. I always wanted to be a coach to help little kids and adults like me,” Ainsley said.

Watch Sofia Carson host “Our America: Fifty50,” a special on ABC-owned TV stations commemorating the 50th anniversary of Title IX, on your local ABC station (click here for local listings) or wherever you stream: Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV and Roku.

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