The Braithwaite Family’s Story
“Believe in yourself and all that you are. Know that there is something inside of you that is greater than any obstacle.”
Christian D. Larson
Sometimes, the patrons of Champ’s Heart wonder if they will be judged because their child is receiving services but doesn’t ‘look’ impaired. While it’s true that it can be easy to make judgements based on physical appearance, you will never find the Champ’s Heart family falling into that trap.
At Champ’s Heart, everyone is welcomed, whether their outward appearance tells their story or not. In fact, most days you will find a wide variety of children on site. For some, the reason they are there will be physically obvious; but for others, their need is obscured by a seemingly healthy, mobile body.
But Larry Cudmore and his staff know that life’s obstacles don’t always show themselves in obvious ways, and that some of the greatest benefits of the program are brought to those who experience unseen internal struggles.
This is true for Grace Braithwaite, who could be a patron but opts to volunteer instead. When you meet Grace, you see a beautiful, gracious, compassionate, and intelligent sixteen-year-old, who is perhaps a little wiser than her years. What you don’t see is the stress, anxiety, and depression that she sometimes feels because of dealing with Celiac and Type 1 Diabetes; autoimmune diseases that can be debilitating, if not managed carefully.
Luckily for Grace, she has found supportive community outlets to help her cope with the stressors of Type 1. She is a member of the Leo’s Club; a youth leadership component of The Rocky Mountain Diabetes Lions Club of Eastern Idaho, and it was through the Leo’s Club that she became involved with Champ’s Heart. She also attends summer camps designed exclusively for Type 1 Diabetics.
Due in part to these support groups, Grace experiences less emotional issues than many of her peers. But there are still days in which she succumbs to the pressures of diabetes.
Grace: “A lot of the other kids have such bad anxiety and depression from it. I’ve got a little bit, but not much. I found that seeing other kids with my problem, and helping them take care of it, helped me a lot. I’ve been diagnosed for six years, so my love-hate relationship with Type 1 is a lot different than some of the other kids. I mean, Type 1 is hard, but it’s weird because I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have it. It was like another life. But there have still been some really low times.”
Managing Type 1 Diabetes is difficult enough, but stressful events also come from external sources. Because people, especially young people, often don’t have a solid understanding of the disease, diabetics are often faced with the daunting (and sometimes embarrassing) task of educating the uneducated. These interactions with people who are uninformed or unintentionally hurtful is yet another layer that creates frustration for people with Type 1.
Grace: “I remember telling this one kid that I had Type 1 and the first question he asked me was if my toes had turned purple. I would just rather not answer those questions.”
Luckily, Grace has found a couple of positive activities to help assuage some of the frustrating components of life with Type 1. Because she gets a great deal of joy from being in service to others, she has gravitated to working with the younger children at camp and volunteering at Champ’s Heart. Both activities have helped Grace put her own issues in perspective. One of the blessings of Champ’s Heart, in particular, is that it gives her the opportunity to step out of her diabetic driven daily grind.
Grace: “It’s just nice to escape it for a bit and not have to be so focused on having to poke your finger. It’s nice just to be around the horses and focus on the kids.”
If we watched Grace at work, we would have no trouble seeing what makes her a great volunteer. It would be obvious that she is a kind, open-minded, skillful handler, and an advocate for the children. Not as obvious but just as important, are the things that would qualify this beautiful young woman to receive services at Champ’s Heart. Although her Diabetes alone would be enough, it is the unseen chronic stress related to her illness coupled with her innate insecurities and introversion that makes her an ideal candidate for this healing equine environment. But because we wouldn’t see the internal issues that call out for attention, we would have no idea that volunteering to help the children of Champ’s Heart is at once altruistic and self-healing for her.
And Grace is certainly not alone. There are many people who can find healing for their unseen needs simply by being immersed in a caring, nonjudgmental moment with horses who know exactly what they need.
Grace: “I have always had a connection with horses. So, the idea of being able to show the other kids that they also can have a connection with horses is so sweet. But I do suffer with depression and anxiety at times, and I am also really introverted. I don’t like being around people in general. But at Champ’s Heart, it’s cool to see the kids because they look up to you. They see you as big and strong because you are leading the horse around, driving the buggy and riding the horse independently. It just feels good. As a volunteer, you can feel good about yourself because you can do all these things and the kids see you as an adult. In some ways, I benefit just like the kids do. The kids don’t know that I have a disability. They just think I’m a cool representative. I’m a cool teenager, I’m a cool adult leading around a horse, right? It’s nice to step out of the diabetes bubble for a little bit. Also, if they don’t know that you have anything going on, there’s a freedom in that. It’s so uplifting because when I’m home, I constantly have people asking me about my blood sugar and this and that related to diabetes. One of the biggest things I’ve learned from Champ’s heart is to look at the child, not their disability. I think that’s a big thing because sometimes people look at the disability and they want to stay away…like they could catch Down’s Syndrome or something. I’ve always understood that; but working at Champ’s Heart has made me see it even more.”
It’s obvious that Grace gains as much from volunteering as the children she serves. She, too, gets a respite from her disability and sees herself in an entirely different light. She witnesses her own confidence and insight expanding in the simple act of volunteering. And just as important are the strides she is making in overcoming her anxiety around people. She just might be on the way to learning that she is a compassionate, capable leader who can choose to expel anxiety from her life.
Grace has six siblings, and she is the only one in her family with diabetes, but she is far from the only one who benefits from Champ’s Heart. Both her mother, Jamie, and three of her six siblings, also play important parts in the Champ’s Heart Family.
I had the pleasure of interviewing a few of her siblings, Emiline, who is Grace’s eleven-year-old sister. Even though the cut-off age for volunteering is 13, her love of horses and her promise to work hard, landed her an exception to the rule. And apparently, she proves every day that she deserves to be there. Ainsley, who is Grace’s fourteen-year-old sister, is a beautiful, well-spoken, old soul kind of child and she is keenly aware of how her contributions positively impact the children she interacts with. And she has a level of passion about being of service that is well beyond her years. She also has a great deal of insight into the fact that, through her volunteerism, she is not only serving but being served as well.
Ainsley: “It’s just an amazing experience to be a volunteer and be around those sweet kids. I also see how amazing it is for the kids and how they love being around the horses, being around Larry, and being able to sit in the buggy or paint the horses. It’s just fantastic. I personally benefit from it too. I have been fortunate in my life because I don’t have Type 1 or anything. I’ve never been in the hospital before, and I’ve never even broken a bone. Because I am so fortunate, I want to help those kids who aren’t as fortunate as I am. It’s my way to serve the world. And I think it’s an amazing way to do it. I also benefit from horses because they’re very gentle and loving creatures, when they aren’t stepping on your feet! They have healing power and are able to serve the kids.”
Grace’s mother, Jamie, rounds out the family picture by being an integral part of the technological and organizational aspects of the program, and she gives many hours of her free time working on the website.
But perhaps one of her most notable contributions, is the effort she put in as the driving force behind getting Champ’s Heart and the Leo’s Club volunteers together.
Jamie: “The reason we started the Rocky Mountain Diabetes Lions & Leo’s Club was to help support our network of Type 1 diabetics here in eastern Idaho. The kids needed to choose leadership opportunities and they decided that they wanted to be around horses. It was just a natural fit for them to go with Larry. It’s kind of a twofold situation because the diabetic kids actually qualify for Larry’s program as patrons. But they are also able-bodied children. I mean, they have a hard life. And it sucks a lot of the time, and they often have multiple diagnoses. But they’re able-bodied children who can apply themselves. If they take care of their diabetes, they can do things like ride horses, and be volunteers. When I told Larry that these kids, who could be patrons, really wanted to participate as volunteers, he put on a training that summer. We had about 25 teens. And they met together for 20 hours, several weeks in a row. It was a lot of hours, and they learned how to do it all.”
Grace and her family are great examples of the many ways in which the horses at Champ’s Heart serve the community. They are also a testament to the fact that, ideally, caring for and serving special needs children takes a village. Many thanks to the Braithwaite family for all they do.