Family displaced by Hurricane Katrina finds new community in Texas Special Olympics

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DEER PARK, Texas -- Brenda and Rick Spencer found out that their daughter Ainsley, now 30, had Down syndrome the day she was born.

They called it "one of the hardest days of our lives," remembering the feelings of anxiety from not being able to see their baby until 14 hours after the birth. Ainsley spent 10 days in the NICU before her parents could finally bring her home.

They explained that the first few years of Ainsley's life were difficult due to a number of medical issues. She had holes in her heart, digestive issues and low muscle tone. Ainsley's parents said she did not start walking until she was almost 3 years old.

"We were determined we weren't going to treat her any differently," Rick Spencer said. "We talked to her just like we talked to anybody else. We didn't use simple words for her, just so she could be the best that she could be. While she knows she's different, she knows that she's very special too."

The obstacles for the Spencer family didn't end there: Living in New Orleans at the time, they were among the 1 million people displaced by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

"We evacuated the day before Katrina came, but we had no idea that it was going to be a permanent thing," they said. "Our son was in his junior year of high school, and Ainsley was in ninth grade. It was a traumatic experience for them."

"It left us homeless for about six months. We really didn't know what we were going to do. Being homeless is really tough on a family," Ainsley said. "I was sad that we were leaving. It was hard for me to leave my friends and school. My biggest fear with going somewhere new is getting to know people and hoping they'll like the way I am and how I look."

The Spencers returned home to Louisiana for a few months after the storm but said the fallout from the hurricane was more severe than they anticipated.

"The main thing was the medical care. At that time in New Orleans, if you went to the emergency room, you could maybe see a doctor in four days. We were worried that if Ainsley had a medical issue, she wouldn't be able to get taken care of. That's when we started thinking that maybe this isn't the right place for us anymore," they said.

What sealed the deal was Rick's employer offering to move their family to Deer Park, Texas, outside of Houston. Little did they know the move would open a new chapter in Ainsley's life.

There, Brenda and Rick met a woman in a local park who encouraged them to enroll Ainsley on the Special Olympics team at her high school.

"We listened, and it's been a busy 15 [to] 16 years ever since," Rick said.

"It truly changed my life," Ainsley added. "It was a place where people like me can just be ourselves and not be judged by our disability or skill level. Special Olympics means everything to me. They are a huge family to me."

Ainsley plays a handful of sports, including basketball, volleyball, tennis, bocce and bowling. Brenda said she takes every competition very seriously and loves to collect medals. She has won gold twice at national games for bocce in Seattle and New Jersey.

"When I see Ainsley, I am so proud of everything she's done. I do get emotional a lot, but that's just because of the love I have for her and how she's touched my life as a parent," Rick said. "Don't ever look down on somebody because they're different than you."

Brenda said she loves how the Special Olympics helps debunk myths and misconceptions about people with special needs.

"She will wear her medal after a competition to church or when we go out to eat. Sometimes someone who doesn't know about Special Olympics will come up to her and say, 'What is that?' I think it helps a lot of people realize, 'Wow. She can do all that,' Brenda said. "Someone once asked us, 'If you had the ability to take away her Down syndrome, would you do it?' I don't think we would because that's what makes her Ainsley."

Earlier this month, her volleyball team, the Deer Park Fireballs, competed in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games at Walt Disney World. Ainsley's teammate, Allyson Combs, and coach, Mary Ann Fox, said the Fireballs are a co-ed "unified" team, meaning that it consists of athletes who do and don't have special needs.

"Ainsley is one of a kind. She has a great personality. She comes with a lot of spunk, and she's very competitive," Fox said.

As the 50th anniversary of Title IX approaches, the Spencers reflected on this monumental piece of civil rights legislation and the impact it's had on Ainsley's life.

"Title IX is all about giving people opportunities to do what they want to do and be the best that they can be, regardless of what their situation, background or identity is. When you look at Ainsley, she has so many opportunities that weren't available 50 years ago before Title IX," Rick said. "A lot of people with Down syndrome back then were put in group homes, and the value they brought to society wasn't recognized."

"I don't think it even occurs to Ainsley that there was a time when she wouldn't have been allowed to participate in a sporting activity because of her gender or her disability. In her world, she's never had to deal with that. Thank goodness," Brenda added.

Most importantly, the Spencers said Special Olympics provided them with a new home, a new family and a new community in Texas.

"When we started, we didn't think it would be a lifelong thing like it's turned out to be," Rick said. "We figured we'd stop doing it once she gets older. But now, we can't imagine our life without Special Olympics. It's a critical part of our lives. We're going to do it until we physically can't anymore."

"I want to continue doing sports. I want to help out with Special Olympics. I've always wanted to be a coach to help little kids and grownups like me," Ainsley said.

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