A Big Sister’s Influence - Penn-Mar

A Big Sister’s Influence

Posted on July 3, 2024

By Karen Cunningham, Penn-Mar Sibling

My sister Brenda attends the Penn-Mar Day Program at Far Hills and lives with my husband, two teen sons, and me. The day program has enabled her to have her own interests and still live with and be a part of our busy family on a daily basis.

Brenda is ten years older than me and has an intellectual and developmental disability (IDD). She is incredibly social and loves to meet people and talk. She may be difficult to understand at times, but she works hard to communicate and be heard. A stranger is only a friend that Brenda has not met – yet! Brenda was like any other sibling to me and our sister Donna. We laughed, played, and argued and didn’t see her as “different.” Brenda was just our big sister.

Having Brenda as an older sister influenced so many of my life decisions whether professionally or personally. I became a special educator to ensure that others with disabilities were taught and loved. I became a school counselor and also a coach to support individuals and families regardless of ability or challenges. 

Personally, I gravitated towards friends who included Brenda and appreciated her smile and her gifts. We’ve always been a “package deal.” My husband knew marrying me would also include having her in our lives with increasing responsibility in the years to come. Our sons, Dylan and Ben, have grown up hanging out and at times caring for Aunt Brenda’s needs because that’s what families do. They’ve learned compassion in an authentic way.

Our mom had been the primary caregiver for Brenda and worked through many challenges before laws were even in place to guarantee education for individuals with disabilities. She made sure Brenda had what she needed and more. When Mom passed away, my dad and I became co-guardians because we knew that I eventually wanted to have Brenda with me full-time. It was a natural progression for her to increase her time with me as Dad’s health declined. When he passed away, I immediately worked with Penn-Mar to find the supports needed to care for Brenda.

The staff at Penn-Mar helped me to make the connections and navigate the changes from Maryland to Pennsylvania and opened their arms to Brenda. She has loved her “school” from day one. Her direct support professionals have become like family to us and Brenda knows she is loved at home and in her days at Far Hills.

Our relationship with Penn-Mar may be different than other families because we only utilize the day program, but that’s what makes the Penn-Mar organization so valuable. The supports are individualized for the individuals and the help is there. Brenda likes her life of leisure – shopping outings, bowling, or making artistic projects. Her life is full of friends and fun and she’s living her best life.

Everyone needs a support system, and the staff and families of Penn-Mar can be that for families and individuals navigating the sometimes-unfamiliar paths or challenging future. I encourage families to reach out for help and appreciate all that Penn-Mar has to offer.

Translate »