Molly VandeWater’s resume reads like that of most twenty-something’s. She has worked in restaurants, at the mall, has volunteered, plays the guitar and takes weekly dance classes. The only difference is that Molly has done all of that and she has Downs Syndrome.
I met with Molly and her Mom, her advocate and champion, Mary VandeWater at the Biggby Coffee on 28th Street in Grandville. We chatted for a little over an hour, touching on only a few of Molly’s many interests and accomplishments.
Molly came into this world ready for anything and everything. At less than one day old she had surgery to correct a pinch between her stomach and intestine. The surgery allowed her to digest food, but she still needed a second surgery on her trachea which would allow her to eat without a feeding tube. Mary spent two years battling with the insurance companies to cover the second surgery, and finally won. Molly went to Omaha, Nebraska for the corrective surgery and her health has flourished ever since.
When Molly began school, Mary wanted the teachers to “expect a lot out of Molly.” Soon after Molly began elementary school in Wyoming, Michigan, she came home one day, found a comfy chair, turned on a lamp and sat down to read I Hate My Bow!, by Hans Wilhelm. Years later, when Molly graduated from high school, her elementary teacher gave her a copy of that book as a graduation gift. Her love of reading started with that book and has grown tremendously through the years.
After high school, Molly had two fabulous years at the Grandville Transition Center. Part of the center’s curriculum is real world experience for those with special needs. Molly spent her days working at Fazoli’s, Younkers and Big Boy. The Transition Center group also volunteered at Kids’ Food Basket and local churches. According to Molly, this is when she gained her confidence. Helping others and working alongside wonderful, supportive teachers gave Molly the extra boost she needed for the next chapter of her life.
Molly is now in college, taking classes at Grand Rapids Community College’s Noorthhoek Academy which was founded in 1989 to provide a college experience for special-needs students. Molly takes one class each semester and has already studied communications, China and photography.
For fun Molly participates in Shape Up! This is a class that combines forty-five minutes of exercise with forty-five minutes of cooking/nutrition. Over the past year Molly has lost over thirty pounds and is teaching her whole family the benefits of healthy eating. She puts her cooking skills to work making her specialty, spaghetti and meatballs, on a regular basis.
One of Molly’s newer interests is a group called Young Life which meets at Calvin College once a week. The group pairs college students with special needs kids. Molly’s face lights up and her head goes back for a big laugh as she tells me about the whipped crème pies the college kids throw. But the group is about more than pie throwing, it gives both groups an opportunity to learn and grow from one another.
Like most mothers and daughters, Molly and Mary have a special bond. “She continually surprises me,” Mary said, with a smile that mirrors Molly’s. And I can see why. With Mary’s infinite love, anything is possible. She dug in her purse for a few seconds and then pulled out an information sheet for the 5K that Molly is running this fall.
For additional information on resources and advocacy regarding Downs Syndrome, please see the Downs Syndrome Association of West Michigan’s website at https://dsawm.org/
Photos by Macy Albaitis.