The McGarritys on raising children with “Awesome” syndrome

At the Celebrate Life Rally and March in Denver on Jan. 12, 2019, Jeff and Sonia McGarrity spoke of their adventure in raising eight children, four of whom are “typical” and four of whom have Down syndrome. Read the transcript of their remarks below and be inspired by their prolife witness and challenge to help change the world—first of all, by loving your family.

JEFF: Good afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity to share about the joy of our family’s life. Allow me to begin by asking if you know why Down syndrome is called what it is? Many people think that the name Down syndrome comes from the observation that individuals with this condition are often delayed or “down” in certain abilities or their IQ. But that’s not the reason. We’ll tell you why in a moment. 

First, a little about us. After our first sons, Thomas and Sean, were born in 2003 and 2004; our third son, Jeffrey, was born in 2006. Jeffrey’s two prenatal ultrasounds looked just like our previous children’s. So, about an hour after his birth, when our midwife told us she thought Jeffrey had Down syndrome, we were surprised. And we began a journey that day that we could not have anticipated before then. 

Celebrate Life 2019: the McGarrity family and "Awesome" syndrome from Catholic Charities of Denver on Vimeo.

SONIA: In 2007, our fourth son, Brendan, was born. And, in 2008, God put it on my heart to Google “Down syndrome adoption.” That led me to a chat with Robin at the National Down Syndrome Adoption Network, who had herself adopted several children with Down syndrome and who was now helping other parents throughout the country do the same. 

After talking to Robin, I thought, “Yes, Lord, we could do that.” We could love a second sweet kiddo with Down syndrome. So, in 2010, we met and adopted Cecilia as a newborn. Then, to prove that God had a sense of humor, and knows exactly what we need, Augustine was born in 2011, one year and four days after Cecilia’s birth. Since then, we have adopted RoseMarie, who has born in 2015. And our sweet little Charlotte, who was born three months ago. Her adoption has not yet finalized, but both of these precious daughters have Down syndrome as well. 

JEFF: That brings us to five boys and three girls. Or four typical kiddos, and four kiddos with Down syndrome. Now, to answer the question why Down syndrome has its name. It’s actually named after the English doctor who first described the condition in the 1860s, Dr. John Langdon Down. In case you didn’t know, Down syndrome is also called Trisomy 21, because people with this condition have three copies of their 21st chromosome, instead of two. In an article titled, “Why is it called Down syndrome?” author Mark Leach wishes that Dr. Down’s last name had been “Awesome” instead. Think about it. Here’s how the conversation — where a doctor informs parents that their child has Trisomy 21 — would sound if his name had been Dr. Awesome. The parents say, “‘Yes, doctor, what do you need to tell us?’ The doctor says, ‘We believe that your child has Awesome syndrome.’” 

SONIA: As we gather today to voice our respect for life, we are aware that the prolife movement is sometimes criticized as just being “pro-baby.” Our family loves babies. I guess that’s obvious. But we love mothers and fathers, as well. And we have open adoptions with all three sets of our girls’ birth parents. And we honor them as heroes because they’ve chosen life instead of abortion for their children. We feel that open adoption is a win/win situation because it allows the birth parents to continue to experience their child’s love, rather than suffering the loss of the love if they were to have chosen abortion.

JEFF: Unfortunately, as you may or may not know, there's a tragic connection between abortion and Down syndrome. In 2017, CBS published an article about Iceland, entitled, “What kind of society do you want to live in? Inside the country where Down syndrome is disappearing?” From the title of this article, you might think that the doctors in Iceland have somehow figured out how to cure Down syndrome. In fact, the article relates that, “Since prenatal screening tests were introduced in Iceland in the early 2000s...close to 100 percent of women...who received a positive test for Down syndrome terminated their pregnancy.” And to bring this shocking tragedy closer to home, the article explains that according to recent data, the United States has an estimated termination rate of 67 percent when a child tests positive for Down syndrome before birth.

A counselor in Iceland who meets with women who have a pregnancy with a chromosomal abnormality, said, "We don't look at abortion as a murder. We look at it as a thing that we ended. We ended a possible life that [may] have had a huge complication... preventing suffering for the child and for the family. And I think that is more right than seeing it as a murder — that's so black and white. Life isn't black and white. Life is grey,” she said.

While families with children who have special needs — and all families, for that matter — certainly have their share of sleepless nights and frustrating days, we are glad to welcome the “suffering” that has these four bright-eyed kiddos as a part of our lives.

SONIA: Baby Charlotte became part of our family rather quickly. So telling our children was quite a surprise to them. When we told Brendan, our 11-year-old, that we were adopting again, he quickly asked us, “Does this baby have Down syndrome?” And when we said that she did, we were touched by his response: 'Yes!'”

As I consider the amazing prolife warriors here and across our country who have tirelessly proclaimed the prolife message, I sometimes feel the need to do more for the prolife movement. But then I remind myself of Mother Teresa’s challenge: If you want to change the world, go home and love your family. Each one of us, and each family, can change the world by being prolife; by being for life, which begins with going home and loving our families. 

JEFF: In closing, I recently heard a song entitled “Do Something” by Matthew West, which spoke to my heart. The lyrics begin like this:

Saw a world full of trouble now / Thought, how'd we ever get so far down / How's it ever gonna turn around / So I turned my eyes to Heaven / I thought, "God, why don't You do something?" / Well, I just couldn't bear the thought of / People living in poverty / Children sold into slavery / The thought disgusted me / So, I shook my fist at Heaven / I said, "God, why don't You do something?" / He said, "I did…I created you.”

Well, not every family is called to have four kiddos with Down syndrome [yet] we've discovered that the something that God had called us to do, is just that. The question we invite you to answer is: what is the something or, the something else — you're all here today — what's the something else that God has called you to do? Thank you for letting us share a little bit of our story with you today.

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What is the Respect Life Office? 

The Respect Life Office champions Church teachings regarding the sanctity of life from conception to natural death. The office provides consultation to—and collaboration with—parishes, as well as educational and healthcare institutions. It also presents life-affirming community events throughout the year, such as Prayer in the Square, Celebrate Life, and coordination with 40 Days for Life, which starts again on March 6. 

Read more about the Celebrate Life Rally and March at respectlifedenver.org. 

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