Stacey Jackson Gagnon has six beautiful kids. One of them is Joel, who was born with a cranio-facial impairment known as Goldenhar syndrome. He is missing an ear and some bone structure. He looks different. She knows that.
But just over a week ago, something happened that hurt Gagnon and Joel. It led to the Arizona mum sharing her pain on social media, in a post that has been shared more than 20,000 times.
Gagnon took her children to a new church because her oldest son was speaking about his experience on camp. She led her three youngest into a meeting room full of kids.
“The minute we walked inside, the room became silent and every child stared or pointed at my son, Joel,” she wrote on Facebook. “I stood at the door and watched every child look with eyes wide and mouths open at my child.”
Gagnon was about to address the group of children about differences, but changed her mind.
“I stopped and looked to the back of the room where my son had fled to hide. He had buried his head in his arms because you cannot hide in plain sight.
“My heart sank and the room remained silent as I walked back to Joel. I touched his shoulder and he raised eyes shiny with tears and a face red with shame. I knelt down and asked, ‘Do you want to leave?’
“‘Yes,’ he whispered, and he stood and ran from the room.”
Gagnon held her son in her arms during church. “He drew ‘Joel loves Mom’ on my palm. Tears welled in my throat. My beautiful and loving son deserves so much more than stares and pointing.”
In the past, Gagnon has always stepped into the role of teacher and spoken to kids to educate them about differences, but that day she didn’t.
“Today, I did not teach someone else’s kid because I was too busy holding my broken-hearted son.”
Gagnon doesn’t think the children were mean. She just thinks no one had ever taught them about differences.
In her post, she made a plea for parents to teach their children about differences – to show them pictures of people with different coloured skin, people in wheelchairs, children without hair or an ear or an arm.
“Show them pictures of people that look different,” she urged. “And then explain that it is not okay to stare at someone that looks different, it’s not okay to point.
LISTEN: Vanessa Cranfield shares what it’s like parenting a child with a disability with Mia Freedman on No Filter (post continues after audio…)
“Teach them that my boy is the same on the inside as your child is. He loves Dodge Ram trucks, and Minecraft, and digging in the dirt. He loves ketchup, but does not love broccoli.
“And mostly, he does not like people staring or pointing out that he looks different. I don’t think he needs this pointed out. It’s something he lives with every day.”
Gagnon tells Mamamia that the response to her post has been “huge”.
“I have had non-stop messages from across the globe,” she says. “Parents writing and telling me they have sat down with their children and shared the pictures found under #joelsfriends. Also, lots of mamas who have children that are stared at because of differences.
“It’s incredible to feel the support.”
One of the photos shared under #joelsfriends on Facebook is of Zane.
He was born without an oesophagus, and had to wear a bag or diaper around his neck for four years. He loves pizza, playing with cars, bikes, and bugging his sister.
Then there’s Carter, who has spina bifida, so he wears braces and uses crutches, a walker or a wheelchair to get around. He loves Paw Patrol, movies, swimming, macaroni and cheese, and playing with friends.
There’s also Ashley, who has Down syndrome. She loves sports, music, science and hanging out with her family.
Gagnon is hoping that parents will just take a moment to share “all kinds of different” with their children.
“Now teach your child that a beautiful person is found with the heart, not the eyes,” she adds.
How important is it to you that your children grow up around all different types of people?