robert-seen as a gift

rob2-cEditor- I had an incredible opportunity to interview an amazing young man on the phone!  Once again, a friend posted a video on facebook which was wonderful!  It was of Robert Pio Hajjar, speaking to a crowd in a large auditorium.  Robert was animated, full of life, dancing on the stage, arms raised and clapping above his head.  Soon, the audience joined in.  Then, Robert began to speak.  He was articulate, entertaining, had a wonderful sense of humor and a huge heart.  The focus of Robert’s message was to share with the audience, that those with disabilities can have a full, meaningful and productive life.  He and his Aunt Addie, together have formed a foundation called, IDEAL-WAY.  Oh, did I mention that Robert has Down Syndrome?  I found IDEAL-WAY on the internet and contacted them to see if we could set up a phone interview.  His Aunt Addie wrote back to me and we set up a time.  I emailed Robert most of my questions before hand so that he could look them over.  He had written out many of his answers ahead of time and read them back to me during our interview but he also answered many spontaneous questions as well and was a joy to talk to.

“IDEAL-WAY!”  Answered the cheery voice on the other end of the phone, which I quickly recognized.

“Well, hello!  This must be Robert!”  I said.

“Yes, it is and I’ve heard all about you Kara, how are you doing?”  Robert asked, enthusiastically.

“I am great!  How are you folks doing?”

“You listened to my speech, I’m so glad you liked my speech, that’s great!”  said Robert.

“Oh Robert, I loved your speech and I’m so glad that you wanted to talk to me today.”  I told him.

“Yes, I love it too.  I’m very proud of it.”  He said of his speech.

“Hi Kara, this is Addie, Robert’s Aunt,” Addie joined in.

We spent a few minutes, just getting to know each other a bit.  Addie told me that there has been a lot of interest in Robert coming from California and they are even thinking of doing something like a speaking tour.  Then we dove into the interview and I started learning more about Robert Pio Hajjar.  Robert will be 32 on December 3rd.  He lives in Toronto, Canada with his mom and dad and he is an only child.

“I need to add that I get spoiled!”  Robert said, making us chuckle.

“I was in the first pilot program to integrate special needs children into regular day care.”  Robert began reading when I asked him about school.

“So, were you always in public schools?” I asked him.

“Catholic schools.  I have always been in integrated classrooms because my mom insisted on it.  She said, me and the other kids would learn from each other.  I graduated from Michael Power High School.  I had lots of homework to do, I had lots to learn and do.”

“Oh wow, Robert, your mother is a very smart woman.”

“Yes, she’s very special.”

“And I bet you got good grades too, didn’t you, Robert?”  I asked.

“Oh, very good!”  His voice filled with pride.

“Well, Robert, I have a list of questions for you but if we wander off of the list, that’s perfectly alright with me!”

“That’s alright with me too, Kara!” replied Robert.

“You know what, Kara, you said something in your email about telling Robert not to be nervous, he’s never nervous!  He’s going to be speaking to about 1,200 people in Alberta for the Special Olympics and it doesn’t matter how many he talks too, it seems like the bigger the stage, the more people the better!  He’s never nervous!”  said Addie.

“Nope, Kara, I’m never, ever nervous.”

“You know why I think so many of us get nervous, Robert?”  I asked, “I think we are worried about what other people will think of us or, what if I mess up?  What will I sound like?  But you’re just up there, doing your thing, enjoying the moment and speaking to the best of your abilities and you know that, and it’s so obvious that you are just so happy speaking to people!”

“That’s right!”  Robert said.

“In your speech, you said that your Mom told the doctors that you were a gift from God, what a wonderful way to start your life!”

“Yes, I was a gift from God!”  Robert said, very confidently.

“How did your parents encourage you?  Do you remember what they would say to you or tell you when you were trying to do something difficult?”

“They treated me like a normal child, my mom was very tough and didn’t let me get away with anything.  She said, “If you do something wrong, you suffer the consequences.”

“Yep,” Addie chimmed in.  “That was the standard line!  It’s true, Robert was not treated any differently at home.  Whatever any other child had to do, that’s what was expected of Robert as well.”

“Your parents sure helped to build up your self esteem!”

“My parents are wonderful!” said Robert.

“Were you ever teased, Robert?  What did your parents teach you about that?  How did you handle being teased?” I asked.

“No, people didn’t tease me, they liked me.  Sometimes they called me handicapped.  My mom told me that they didn’t understand about Down Syndrome because if they did, they would not tease me.  My mom and dad always told me how special and smart I was.”

“Kara, you know your question that you wrote us about the best way to learn how to appreciate and understand someone, with Down Syndrome?”  Addie interjected, “Well,  Robert took that as a question and listen to what Robert came up with, this is really good, listen to this, go ahead Robert.”

“When people get to know me, they don’t like me, they loooooooove me!”  I could see through Robert’s voice, his face which I’m sure, was covered with a smile.

“I think the message there is that he accepts who he is.” continued Addie.  “Isn’t that totally the opposite of the rest of us?  I’ve never in my whole life, heard Robert say, “I hate having Down Syndrome!”  I’ve never heard him say that!”

“That is so good, Robert.” I told him.  Over and over again, I have seen children with disabilities who carry such joy, it comes from being raised in an atmosphere of unconditional love and acceptance and knowing that they are treasured for who they are and treated with the value that their Heavenly Father has placed upon them.

“Robert, is it frustrating when things may have take longer for you to learn?”

“When I got frustrated, I would go to my room to calm down, sometimes I would count to ten and then I would try it again.”

“That’s a very good idea, Robert!  I think I need to remember to do that myself!”  I commented with a chuckle.

“That was a very common thing for him,” said Addie.  “Down Syndrome children, their stubbornness is huge!  People meet Robert today and look at him and they are just amazed but this is years of work.  Robert wasn’t born this way.  I think that is what is really great about Robert delivering his message, the people watching the video, they can see where their kids are now and it doesn’t stay that way.  This is  how far they can come.  If you were to watch a video of Robert when he was 10, it wouldn’t be the video that you see today!”

“You know, when we train our volunteers at camp, we teach them that kids with Down Syndrome must learn how to control their emotions.  When they are frustrated, you know that they are frustrated!  When they are happy, they are off the charts happy!  But if you’ve done something to upset them, boy, will you know that they are very angry with you but then, a few minutes later, they will probably be over it.”

“That is so true,” said Addie.  “You know the part in Robert’s speech where he says, “I will forgive you…”  You can do something to Robert and he will forgive and forget.  That’s not true of us, Kara, is it?  But it’s true of Robert.”

“You know, I know a pastor who has said, “What if when we get to heaven, we all have the characteristics of Down Syndrome?”  I told Robert and Addie.

“That reminds me of years ago, when we were helping to get Special Hockey International Tournaments going in Canada and North America and our marketing company was doing a fund raiser, this is way before IDEAL-WAY came to be.   I remember standing at this podium at this pep rally with people looking at me like I was nuts but I said, “Who’s to say that this is our world?”  I remember looking at the faces, the teachers really got it.  Maybe when we cross over, God’s going to say, “It was never your world anyways, they were the kind ones to let you in.”

“Oh so good, makes us think, doesn’t it?”  I paused for a moment.  “Robert, you know, in your speech you say, Down Syndrome did not stop me from living a happy and meaningful life?  Robert, a lot of us think, how can people with Down Syndrome be happy?  There are so many things that they can’t do?  What are some of the things that you love to do, what makes your life happy?”  I asked him.

“Baseball, swim, golf, love scrabble, WWF wrestling, music and being with God every day!”

“Robert, what would you say to someone who is afraid of getting to know people with disabilities?

“Be gentle, be calm, speak slowly to them, not too fast.  Don’t be afraid of them.  That’s how they were born and God made them!”  Robert said, his voice filled with emphasis.

“Now, tell us about your foundation, what is, IDEAL-WAY?” I asked.

“It was my idea.  I wanted to start a charity to help people like me.  We educate the world to understand people like me, we do poetry and art contests across Canada, we have clothing giveaways to people like me in group homes.  We want people to feel:   Included, Deserving, Equal, Appreciated and Loved.”

“I want you to tell me more about what it was that you said to your Aunt Addie about starting this foundation.”  Robert had mentioned this in his video.

“There is something more special for her to do, God would always be happy and guide her.  It was a special moment between me and my aunt!”  Robert said, reading his answer to me.

“How did you know that, Robert?  How did you know that this was something that God wanted for you to do?”

“Because God told me!  You know what Kara?   I’ll tell you one thing.  Every day, I go into my room and I pray to God, I put church on every single day, I always have one hour mass.  The angels always come and visit me in my room!”

“Robert, are you one of those people who can see angels?”  I asked, an excitement just welling up in my heart as Robert spoke.

“Every day when I sleep, I always dream about angels!  From my heart to yours, I want you to know, they always speak to me and they get closer and closer every single time!  And I always tell the angels what my aunt or my uncle does for me, is very special to me.  You know, my aunt is very special to me, she will always be very special to me.  I love my aunt more than the whole world!  I will not let anything happen to her!”

“You have got such a great family, Robert.” I said, so touched by this young man’s heart.

“We are flesh and blood, just want to let you know that, Kara!  I have to stick that in!”

rob-and-addie“Yep, we’re flesh and blood!”  Addie chimed in.

“You share that with each other, don’t you Robert, you will always be flesh and blood.”

“Always and forever!”  Robert agreed.

“Tell Kara what you always say, Robert!”

“Me and Addie are TIGHT together!”  Robert said energetically with Addie laughing in the back ground.

“You’re darn right, Robert, nothing is ever going to come between us!”  the love between the two so obvious.

“Robert, in your video, you also say, “Who would believe that a man with Down Syndrome can change the world?  How can you change the world, Robert?”

“When I talk to everyone around the world, they will give people like me a chance and they will include us!”

“What do you think that God has taught you through having Down Syndrome?  What are some of the important lessons that you have learned?”  I asked him.

“I am a good speaker, God gives me a voice to talk, I have a great personality, I am a people person, I have a big heart.  I do not allow the negative into my life, only the positive.”

“That’s very important, to focus on the positive isn’t it, Robert?”

“That’s my line!”  Robert said.

“Do you feel like there are important things for you to do every day, Robert?”

“I stay focused on God, I pray with God every day, like I was telling you and he is always good to me.  He is always special.  God always guides me.  I am going all over the world to speak for our friends who can’t!”

“You are his special gift, aren’t you, Robert?”

“I am a gift from God.”  Robert said with knowing confidence.

“What are some of the things that you would like to say, Robert,  to the parents of a baby or a child with Down Syndrome?”

“This is what I’m going to read to you, this is really true:  don’t put them away, guide them, fight for them, raise your child and give them hope, faith, show your baby how much you love them, give them happiness and tell them that they can be like Robert Pio Hajjar!”

Both Addie and I burst out laughing with joy, “That is wonderful, Robert, I LOVE that!”

“Also, Kara, make sure they know other children so that they can learn from each other,” added Robert.

“That is very good.  That’s so important, isn’t it?  People with disabilities can teach us many things, can’t they?”

“It’s a two way street!”  Replied Robert.

“And that’s what Robert says in his full speech,” said Addie.  “That’s just a 9 minute video on youtube but the full speech is about 30 minutes.  IDEAL stands for something else too, Kara:   Intellectually Disabled Enrich Able Lives.  Robert knows that.  It’s not charity, in other words, we get just as much, if not more out of it then those with disabilities.”

“You know,” I said, “one of the hardest places to teach that is within our churches.  Our disability programs are not just for those with disabilities, it is to include them so that the entire body of Christ is affected.  We need one another, 1 Corinthians 12 talks about the spiritual gifts that we all have, we all are necessary to the body.” I added.

“We go out and do different things and call on volunteers,” said Addie.  “Not too long ago, we had an event with 46 volunteers and one of the young gals said, “I brought this friend with me but not my other friend because she isn’t open to people like Robert.”  And I told her that she should have brought that friend!  Because I guarantee you that once you are around people like Robert, you’re hooked!”

“I’m just so excited when I see videos like Roberts!”  I said, “They are going to teach others more about people with disabilities.”

“Do you know what, Kara?”  Robert said, “There’s something I have to let you know, one of the mothers at Day Care, she has a Down Syndrome boy like me, his name is Owen, O-W-E-N.”

“Several years ago,” Addie joined in to tell the story, “Robert used to volunteer at this day care, and when Robert was there, and imagine, God works in mysterious ways- there are no coincidences, there is a reason, this teacher became pregnant.  She had never had any exposure to kids with Down Syndrome and so, for 6 and a half months, she was faced with Robert every day, getting to know him, interacting with him.  The ninth month, she delivered a child with Down Syndrome.  She still keeps in touch with Robert and updates him on her son’s progress.  Just last month she sent an incredible letter that was just beautiful and she told us how God had a purpose for Robert in her life, everyone was so touched and we were all in tears.”

“You know, so many doctors paint a picture of the worst case scenario for these expectant parents.”  I added because I have heard this time and time again.  “I really believe that a lot of this has to do with liability and they push these parents to abort.  That is one of the main focuses of this website, to get these stories out about how God works in and through the lives of those with disabilities.”

“They are not God!” added Addie passionately about the doctors.  “One of my goals, if it’s the last thing I do, even if I’m like 70 or 80 years old, IDEAL-WAY will address a large delegation of doctors and Robert will speak.  How dare they say something like that!  Do not tell people to put these children away and forget about them!  It’s very interesting that there is this big talk about putting an end to children with Down Syndrome!  They are so loving, I can’t even imagine!”

“You know, I truly believe that Down Syndrome is a gift, what more pure form of love than that which given by people with Down Syndrome?”

“Yes, Kara!  That is a really good point!  I’ll tell you, when I’m with Rob, I feel like there is nothing else in the world that matters.  I feel happy, I feel everything.  There are times when I’m down and Robert will tell me that all I have to do is pick up the phone and call him and it’s so true!  You know, I used to have an international marketing company, and there was a day when Robert told me what I should be doing with my life!”

“That’s me, Kara!”  Robert chimed in.

“When Robert first told me,” said Addie, “I went home and told my husband and my sister, they thought I was crazy!   They said, “You’ve built this company for 10 years, how can you just walk away from it?”

“I’m always saying that God speaks to me through Robert, I can’t pick and choose when I say that!  I had an incredibly large deal on the table, I had just secured contracts in North America and South America for the IRA Scan system that is used in airports, embassies, all over, and I stood to make some serious money.

“My sister said, “Do it, get the money and then you can do everything that you want to do for people like Robert.”

” I started going down that path but Robert called one day out of the blue and said, “We need to talk!”  Robert told me that he thought it was time to set up a company and  that he wanted to make the first donation.

“What are you talking about?” I asked him.  Robert said, “I have money, I’ve been saving it all of my life.”

“How much do you have?”  I asked him and he told me that he had thousands.  I thought, ‘What?’  My sister had never told me that he had thousands!  My husband and I drove over to see him.  He took us into his room and he pulled out this little wooden box that he had.  I was thinking that unless he had lots of thousand dollar bills, there’s no way he’s got thousands in that little box!  We opened it up and it was $62.05!  That little wooden box sits in our office today with the framed money.

“You know what, Kara, I believe that God knew that in my heart, I was struggling with one foot in and one foot out when I got Rob’s call.  I told my husband that night, “It’s done.”

He said, “It’s finished?”  And I remember at the time, I just felt it, you know, enough, I was sure.  When Robert called me, it was just a confirmation.  I didn’t see any rhyme or reason to say, “You know what, let me think about it.”  Right there and then on the spot, I turned to my husband and he fully supported me, 100% and told me, “Whatever you want to do.”  And that was the beginning of IDEAL-WAY.

As we finished our phone call, Addie and I were sharing how God has lead us into these organizations and adventures without much training, just feeling Him lead as we step out by faith.  I mentioned that I have no formal training in journalism, but it is these amazing stories that will tell themselves and Robert said to me, “God will guide you, Kara!”

“He will, Kara, He will be there!”  Addie affirmed.

“Thank you, thank you so much.”

As we said our goodbyes, Robert said to me, “Bye, beautiful!  And God bless you and your family!”

I hung up the phone, so deeply touched by the love and hope that was displayed throughout this phone call with Robert and his Aunt Addie and in my heart I prayed,  “Lord, that my own children would grow up to be like Robert Pio Hajjar.”


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