Life is beautiful, encouraging and hopeful.
Life is also weird, depressing and taxing.
Whether it’s through family, friends, organizations, etc., most people need someone to lean on when life goes from exciting to exhausting. Many times, for people with intellectual disabilities, that support system is either broken or non-existent.
For Brett Harper, 18, of Webb City, that’s definitely not the case; he couldn’t ask for a much better community of people who care about him and cheer him on at every (left) turn.
Life is weird
For 16 years, Bill and Sheila Harper tried to have a child. For 16 years, they hoped and prayed for the opportunity to name their firstborn, if it was a boy, after George Brett, the Major League Baseball player and Hall of Famer from the Kansas City Royals.
After 16 years, they decided to adopt. They were introduced to Brett, who was four at the time, and fell in love.
Two weeks after filling out all the paperwork to adopt him, Sheila and Bill had a moment that showed just how weird life can be; they found out that Sheila was pregnant. After 16 years of trying, and then filling out all the paperwork to adopt Brett, they were finally pregnant.
Instead of this being an overly-joyous occasion, they were also worried it was going to negatively affect their adoption of Brett.
“We were so afraid then that they wouldn’t let us adopt Brett because we were having another child,” Sheila said. “I was distraught about it.”
In the end, Sheila being pregnant with Willy didn’t affect Brett’s adoption.
After 16 years of no kids, the Harpers now had one in the house and one on the way in the span of a couple of weeks. It’s also funny how, in the end, they got their “Brett” they always dreamed about.
Life is taxing
Leading up to the adoption, the Harpers knew that Brett had an intellectual disability, but there was never a question of whether or not they wanted to bring him into their lives. The transition to his new family, however, did take its toll on everyone involved.
“He was horribly malnourished and not potty-trained (at the age of four),” Sheila said. “We knew he had some delays (cognitively), but we weren’t sure how they would manifest over time.
“It was hard because it’s like, ‘How do we help him?’ What therapies are available and what can we do for him?’”
When he first came into their lives he could really only say a couple of words, including “mom” and “ball.”
Living in the southwest corner of Missouri, services for people with intellectual disabilities are few and far between.
“We could tell he was trying to communicate with us, but just couldn’t get it out,” Bill said, explaining the most difficult part of being Brett’s father. “It was just heartbreaking. He’d eventually just give up.
“This area doesn’t have a ton of help for a child with autism. We were on a waiting list for speech therapy for two years, which during that waiting time he was regressing.”
One thing that actually helped Brett is working with his younger brother, Willy.
Life is hopeful
As most sibling relationships go, Willy and Brett’s relationship is one best defined as “love-hate,” according to Sheila, but when Willy started talking and working on his reading and writing, it helped Brett too.
“Willy would just start (interpreting) for Brett because we couldn’t understand Brett at the time,” Sheila said. “They understood each other really well. He would work with Brett on his reading and writing and it benefitted the two of them because they worked so well together.”
At school, Brett received the best education possible through the Webb City School District, and in the process was introduced to Special Olympics in fifth grade. He’s made quite the impact on the school district since then.
“Brett is just a likeable kid that waves and speaks to everyone,” said Webb City High School Principal Shawn Mayes. “He has an outgoing personality and is always smiling.”
Brett now may be that “social butterfly” as his mom describes him, but she said he wasn’t always that way.
“Special Olympics has built his confidence not just in sports, but in his schoolwork, his speaking or whatever he’s doing,” Sheila said. “It’s nice for him to be able to compete in something. He isn’t judged by his classmates.
“Special Olympics has been really, really good for him.”
Brett competes on his high school’s track and field team and ran cross-country in junior high. These weren’t token spots either; Brett is a phenomenal athlete.
“I’ve seen him putting miles in after school… his competitive attitude is evident when watching him,” Mayes said. “He has a fire that he wants to do his best each and every time.”
Brett said, “It feels good going fast. (I like) staying in line and crossing the finish line first. I like to win!”
Because of Special Olympics and the welcoming-nature of his school, Brett has flourished both athletically and personally. Last year, he was named to Team Missouri’s track and field team that will compete at the 2018 USA Games in Seattle later this month.
Life is beautiful
Brett will be one of eight athletes from Missouri competing in track and field in the Emerald City.
When asked what he’s most looking forward to in Seattle, Brett said, “meeting new people and getting to compete.”
The Harpers had a watch party for Special Olympics Missouri’s video to announce the team. Luckily for the 40 or so people in attendance, they didn’t have to wait long as Brett’s name was the first one to be read.
“We weren’t expecting that reaction (from Brett when he heard his name),” Sheila said about Brett screaming and jumping for joy. “It’s been just wonderful. We’re so excited.”
“Making (Team Missouri) has been amazing,” Bill said.
Brett said he’s happy he made the team.
“Everyone has been really nice to me and they say they are proud of me,” Brett said.
Webb City High School and its students amped up their support for Brett once he made the team.
“Teachers were (at the watch party), they highlighted him and did a story at the high school pep rally before football games, they honored him in front of the crowd…he was all over the place,” Sheila said. “One of the homecoming queen candidates (last fall) asked him to escort her.”
Click play on video above to see Brett’s reaction to making Team Missouri.
Mayes said he is proud to see his school support not just Brett, but all of the other Special Olympics athletes in Webb City as well.
“Special Olympics has always been something that our students have participated in,” he said. “However, it seems in the last few years it has taken off for our athletes. Our athletes receive a tremendous amount of support from the staff, student body and the community.”
Brett’s story is not just one of perseverance and incredible athletic ability, but one of inclusion. With the super-tight support network that he has around him, Brett is able to shine both on the track and off.
“He told me, ‘Dad, everybody knows my name – I’m popular!’” Bill said. “To see these other kids reach out to him and make him feel like a part of something is really heartwarming.
“We’re very grateful.”