Read: World Down Syndrome Awareness Day | The Many Blessings of Phoebe Gifford

Meet Phoebe Gifford who is a student at Saint Joseph Catholic School in the town of Saint John. What a beautiful photograph! What a beautiful girl!

13-year-old Phoebe has Down Syndrome. Upon World Down Syndrome Awareness Day, March 21, Phoebe’s mom, Ann, gives thanks to Almighty God for the many blessings Phoebe brings daily to her family and all who know and love her. Ann writes:

"God’s preparations for giving us a child with Down syndrome began long before we knew we needed them, as he graciously prepares us for all life changes. Soon after I learned I was having our fifth baby, I stayed at a retreat center in a room named after St. Robert Bellarmine, who — I would later learn — is the patron saint for those with Down syndrome."

"Months passed, and one of my children casually asked me what we would do if their new sibling were born with Down syndrome. The answer was obvious to me and important for them to hear: “We would just love them, of course!” Coincidences? Maybe, but it is more likely that God was planting seeds that he would later help us to reap. So, when Phoebe Hope was born in October 2010, that’s just what we did: we welcomed her, kissed, held, cherished and spoiled her, just as any family would do. After one cataract surgery and two glaucoma surgeries, we settled into life with a newborn who required the usual tender loving care any baby does. She was loved and fought over by four older siblings who simply saw her for who she was — one of them."

"Our families, church and school community embraced us, prayed for us and showed such care for her from the start. They have been her cheerleaders and a great support system for our family."

"Phoebe received occupational, speech and vision therapies at home before attending preschool at Clinton County RESA. We were so blessed to have these resources and people in place to make sure she was growing and achieving her milestones. Even if it took longer to do, our stubborn little girl worked hard and was soon racing, jumping and climbing with the best of them."

"Our next decision, where we wished her to spend her elementary years, was based on a major prayer that I had from almost the first day of her life: I wanted her to attend St. Joseph Catholic School in St. Johns, just as her older siblings were doing. This was a bit unprecedented, since no child with Down syndrome had attended the school before. Still, knowing that we wanted her to be in a classroom with typical peers and greatly valued the spiritual aspect of Catholic schooling, we thought it really wouldn’t hurt to try. After all, isn’t the calling and creed of a Catholic school to welcome, accommodate and instill Catholic values in every child, disability or not? Of course!"

"Academics, social appropriateness and the like are essential achievements, but for us, they take a back seat to getting this little girl to heaven. For her to be surrounded with the images, attitudes and sacraments of our faith is essential for forming who we wish Phoebe to be and where we want her to spend her eternity. The school gives her the chance she needs to spend each day in this atmosphere."

"Phoebe is currently in her eighth year there. Every day, she is in classrooms with her peers, working on an accommodated and modified curriculum, receiving therapies per an individualized education program, attending all the typical specials and participating in the sacraments of the Church. Most importantly, she has teachers, staff, an aide and friends who have been willing and very capable of directing and helping her at every turn. With the proper resources (academics, curriculum, aide, finances etc.) kids with Down syndrome or of any ability or disability can make a big impression on a Catholic school. The benefits are mutual to the child and to all who come into contact with him or her, and the effect is eternal."

"Has it been easy, and did we ever expect it to be? Of course not. Phoebe has struggles and triumphs like any other child, and she works to address them daily. Her next step — middle school — will be (God willing once again!) at another Catholic school, this time at Most Holy Trinity in Fowler. A new community, new friends and new teachers will be introduced to the wonderful world where kids with Down syndrome are cherished and respected for who they are, not how many chromosomes they have."

"By the way, did you know that numerous countries have abortion rates nearing 100 percent to eliminate babies with Down syndrome? This is unimaginable and unacceptable, as Phoebe’s very life attests to."

"Being near a person with special needs is like being cozy with Jesus himself. Try it sometime! You won’t regret it, and that’s our last word!"

• First published in the Last Word section of FAITH Magazine of March 2024.