The rugged, manly men who work at Wilson Lumber, spending days around miter saws and hammer drills, stop to welcome Cassie, 32, into the store every day when the tram drops her off. On this day, she walks in wearing a Christmas sweater and heads over to talk to Kathryn, one of the employees Cassie has grown to love. Kathryn has a present for Cassie—reindeer antlers on a headband—waiting for her to wear. Over the years, Cassie has become a fixture at Wilson Lumber. Her father Guy Patterson has been working there for 41 years. When Cassie was born with Down syndrome, the owners at Wilson Lumber welcomed her into their fold.
After Cassie graduated from high school, she started spending more time at the store before and after her day program. She has a memory most people would love to have, so she can greet most of the customers by name. Recently, one of the regulars stopped by, wearing shorts—an anomaly for him. When Cassie saw him, she immediately joked, “Nice legs, Tim.”
She also keeps everyone in stitches with her one-liners and nicknames for the employees—Chucky and Two Sack.
When Cassie was born, no one could have imagined how she would impact the employees at Wilson Lumber. Years later, one of the owners, Russ Wilson, had a child with Down syndrome. One future Wilson Lumber employee, Joel Graydon, met Russ in a group for fathers of children with Down syndrome and then hired on when there was an opening.
For a business the size of Wilson Lumber, it’s unusual to have three employees with similar circumstances. But, instead of letting the situation control them, they’re supporting each other and using the business to raise awareness about Down syndrome.
“It’s really cool to be working somewhere where they fully understand what I’m going through,” Joel said. “If I’m having a bad day trying to deal with the school system, or I had a bad IEP meeting or if I have to go to Vanderbilt on a regular basis…I don’t have to explain that. They understand what it’s all about.”
When Joel’s son, Ezra, was born with Down syndrome three years ago, Joel was a mess. Unless doctors specialize in the condition, and there aren’t any of those in Huntsville, they aren’t prepared to talk to parents about what their child’s life might look like. So, when doctors told Joel his son was at a higher risk for heart problems and leukemia, Joel started to panic.
He joined a group for dads with children who have Down syndrome, where he met Russ, who gave him some important advice.
“When Ezra was born, I was scared to death,” Joel said. “When I got to know Russ, one of the first things he told me was to ‘chill out, it’s all going to be OK.”
Joel’s hopes and dreams for his son changed when they found out Ezra had Down syndrome. He still wanted great things for his son, but they were different from the goals he once had.
Working at Wilson Lumber has given him insight into what his son will be capable of.
Guy Patterson said he doesn’t necessarily teach the other two fathers. Instead, he lets them see how far Cassie has come so they can see someone with Down syndrome reaching her full potential.
“They see how well spoken, how polite she is, and that has to make them feel better,” Guy said.
While Cassie stays out of the way of her father’s work, the owners at Wilson Lumber are understanding when it comes to special considerations Joel, Guy and Russ might need for their children.
“Some businesses are not going to have kids around—much less a special needs child,” Guy said. “They’ve been good about that.”
Since Down syndrome is a condition affecting so many of the Wilson Lumber family, they decided to start branching out into the community to raise awareness by sponsoring the Buddy Walk for Huntsville. Each October, Buddy Walks are scheduled across the country to encourage acceptance of people with Down syndrome. Money from the Buddy Walk goes to helping new parents get the information they need.
In the past seven years, Wilson Lumber has raised more than $5,000 for Down Syndrome awareness.
To find out more about Down syndrome, Buddy Walks and how you can get involved, check out the Bringing Up Down Syndrome website.