If you were with us last week at Snowmass Chapel you know that we had a special performance immediately after the worship service. One of our young parishioners, Emily Garcia, is home for a brief visit from the school she attends for students with special needs, and she shared a message with us using sign language and set to the incredible song, “This is Me.”* The song’s lyrics are a powerful reminder that every single one of us is EXACTLY who we are meant to be. If you could have all seen Emily up on that chancel last week – oh my stars you’d have been proud. Like, weepy-smiley-jump-to-your-feet proud. When Emily finished, the congregation erupted in a standing ovation. YOU ALL STOOD UP for one of our own like nobody’s business and made me so proud. Love God, love people – it’s what we do.

Never one for much nuance this girl cut right to the chase in her introduction: “In the past I’ve been bullied before for who I am, and this song brings me a lot of joy.” No wonder. Talk about powerful lyrics:

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me.

Truer words don’t exist my friends. We have all been subjected to sharp, cutting words that are meant to hurt us. But we cannot be defined by that. Don’t you think for one SECOND that someone else has the power to define who you are with ugliness.

In our schools around this country, one in four students report being bullied. Students with disabilities – like Emily who has high functioning autism and epilepsy – are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their non-disabled peers. Just to be clear in case you missed the point: those who need our support and compassion THE MOST are the ones being teased, tormented and bullied. What in the world has gotten into us?

Emily says the problem is with compassion. “To the students with no disabilities, I would say, you need to know that people with autism, ADHD, or mental health issues have a struggle with social skills and with life. Show some empathy. Ask them questions like, ‘Are you ok? What’s happening that is upsetting you?’ Stick up for them,” Emily calmly suggests. And most importantly, she offers this age-old wisdom: “Put yourself in their shoes.”

Emily admits she is not perfect. Because of her diagnosis and learning style, she had to learn many of these lessons the hard way but adds that her school (a private residential program out of state) taught her “how to make friends in a polite, appropriate manner, and I learned boundaries.” In other words, she is learning how to stick up for herself as well as others. Emily thinks these are things ALL schools should spend more time teaching. Amen to that, sister!

Emily, serious and focused throughout the song as she performed on Sunday, finally relaxed at the very end, threw in a little dance hop for good measure, and literally beamed at the crowd. Just: be still my heart.

Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me.

I had the chance to catch up with Emily this week and this feisty, articulate young lady (who, by the way, gives AMAZING HUGS), is the definition of grace and love. I’d be honored if you scroll down and read her beautiful words shared with me during our conversation. Then do yourself a favor and watch the moment the cast and crew of The Greatest Showman knew their anthem song, “This is Me,” was destined to be something special.

Excerpts from Emily:

I first met Emily when she and her mom, Cecilia, attended a Mother-Daughter retreat hosted by Snowmass Chapel in 2012. Her smile is huge and her heart even bigger. I found her honesty and directness refreshing, though it’s easy to see how some peers might have been overwhelmed by her at times. People with autism don’t have all the social cues all of the time, let’s just say.

Eventually, Emily’s mom made the gut-wrenching decision to enroll Emily in a residential school 8 hours away so she could have the education she needed – in addition to academics, Emily also receives instruction in life skills, behavior therapy, and social skills. She and I caught up after church last week on a rare visit home, and our conversation was just too rich not to share. Here are some excerpts of wise words from our Emily:

On bullying and school culture:

“Bullying is a real issue for kids with special needs. Some kids cope with bullying through self-harm.  The bullying causes anxiety and depression and then can lead to more serious things like cutting.”

“Most bullies just want to get a reaction. Don’t give it to them. Ignore them. And if ignoring doesn’t work, then learn to step away from the person and say, “Stop it. You are really hurting my feelings.” If someone is bullying you, be firm and respectful and ask them to stop. If that doesn’t work then go find a staff member or teacher.”

“But teachers (in most schools) need to help students more. They need to help students process their emotions, not just ignore kids who are upset or hurting. Teachers dismiss things by saying, “She didn’t mean that,” or “Go sit somewhere else.” Teachers should be compassionate and consider students’ negative feelings (validate their feelings). I think all kids on IEP (Individual Education Plan) should have a life skills class to help them socialize better and integrate into the school population better.”

“I had to learn a lot of things like how to make friends in a polite, appropriate manner. I also learned boundaries like sexual, emotional, physical, verbal and rigid (too strict). I learned how to have boundaries and how to respect others boundaries.”

“There is no such thing as ‘normal.’”

On helping teens accept each other:

“OK. For kids with special needs: Be who you are.”

“For kids who don’t have special needs just know that everyone with a disorder has different ways of expressing themselves. Kids with mental illness such as bipolar or schizophrenia don’t read cues as well, like body language and other things, so they might have outbursts and get angry. My advice is don’t fight back. They just get angry because they can’t always see what is really happening.”

“People need to know that kids with special needs have a struggle with social skills and with life. They take things personally and get anxious or have outbursts. You can help by showing empathy. Ask questions like “Are you ok? What is happening that is upsetting you?” instead of just teasing them or not wanting to be near them. Stick up for them. Put yourself in their shoes.”

“The same is true for people who are transgender (or LGBTQ). They are just expressing themselves. Put yourself in their shoes: if you were trying to express yourself by the way you dress or wear your hair and people put you down, how would that feel?”

On faith and religion:

“I will get my diploma in a year, and it will come from school AND from God. Because God helps me move forward. God helps me do things I don’t think I can.”

“I want to be a spiritual counselor for other people who are struggling. You can talk to God about anything.”


*This is Me Songwriters: Justin Paul / Benj Pasek, performed by Keala Settle