Sometimes our willingness to try new things can serve as inspiration for others. In this post, you’ll meet Wendy Calhoun Erdman, an inspirational figure for many people across the United States. Her admirers including Sondra White, who wrote this story for I Start Wondering.
As she was falling through the air at 120 miles per hour over Baytown, TX, Wendy Calhoun Erdman wasn’t just someone with Down syndrome. She was an empowered, courageous woman celebrating 40 years of a wonderful life. Yes, she happened to be born with Down syndrome, but that has rarely stopped her – or her parents, Sue and Don Calhoun – from realizing her dreams.
The world was a different place for people with Down syndrome 40 years ago, so from the get-go Wendy faced an uphill battle for inclusion and opportunity. Public schools were not even required to admit kids like Wendy until 1970 – that’s only five years before she was born. With the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) of 1970, children with disabilities, including Down syndrome, were given the same opportunity for education as those who do not have a disability. (In 1990 the U.S. Congress reauthorized the EHA and changed the title to IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.) Before 1970, public schools could turn children with Down syndrome away and most did just that.
But her parents and brother Donnie pushed the envelope for Wendy, who did well in school, made a lot of friends and was involved in extracurricular activities. Flash forward and you can see the results of the Calhouns’ early efforts: Wendy has worked for Chik-fil-A for nearly 20 years and has been happily married to Ben (who also has Down syndrome) for about a dozen years. The couple owns their own home and they are both active in Special Olympics, the Down Syndrome Association of Brazos Valley, Young Life and Central Baptist Church, to name just a few of their many activities. They travel often to give presentations to others in the Down syndrome community and spend lots of quality time with friends and family.
I’m a busy working mom to a 17-year-old with Down syndrome so I don’t get to spend enough time with Wendy. When I do, she has a special way of refreshing my spirit and lifting my hope for the future, not just for my son Quentin but for the human race in general. She has never met a stranger and she has a hug for almost everyone. But just when you might think that she’s a little gullible or perhaps not really paying attention, Wendy Erdman will say something witty and often hilarious. She’s brilliant in more ways than most really smart people I know and emits a confidence that defies assumptions.
It was Wendy’s idea to jump out of an airplane on her 40th birthday. In a cursory Google search, I could find no proof of any other woman with Down syndrome skydiving. I did find one or two young men with Down syndrome who have tried it, but no women as far as I could tell. Neither her husband nor her parents tried to talk her out of the idea. In fact, her good friend Aron Collins, who was also celebrating 40 years of life, jumped on the same day. A crowd of at least 30 friends and family members gathered to watch the big event and she raised about $5,000 for the DSABV in the weeks leading up to the jump.
All of us who know Wendy well knew that this was just another great day in her life. Why worry, she kept saying. And she was right. Like nearly everything else in her life, Wendy pulled it off like a pro – and she has the video to prove it! Wendy may not realize it, but we’re all watching her. I’ve been watching her for about 10 years now, and I know many others who hope their children with Down syndrome will grow up with the same sense of adventure and bold spirit. She’s a pioneer blazing a trail. I can’t wait to see what she does next.