January 29  |  3 minute read

Spencer Whelan doesn’t remember his parents explaining Down Syndrome. His sister, Hayden, was just who she was- empathetic, strong-willed, hilarious, and kind.

In the Whelan family, she wasn’t treated any differently. She was a daughter, a niece, a cousin, and a sister- all the same.

And like any good older brother, Spencer took care of her, defending her on the playground when kids were cruel and loving her anyway when she put ketchup on her mac & cheese.

Hayden looked up to Spencer, and he was her protector.

Until he couldn’t be.

In their early teen years, amidst the already ever-present health struggles of a child with an intellectual disability, Hayden was diagnosed with cancer.

Suddenly, the role Spencer played shifted entirely.

“I didn’t really know how to address it when I was that young, so I just kind of did my own thing. She’s so tough.” Spencer explained, “She went in and out of the hospital getting chemo, and she was just so strong.”

Though it was a painful and confusing time for the entire family, after months of resilience and treatments, Hayden reached a full recovery. Once again life made sense.

Then came the fall of 2013.

Spencer had just made the big move from his Sacramento home to start his freshman year at Azusa Pacific University. The contents of his final moving box had been neatly put away, and the evening temperatures began to dip below the 80s, signaling autumn for California. That’s when he got the call.

Hayden had a stroke.

“It was one of the few times I cried in college,” Spencer remembers painfully, “and after a while I started to get depressed; because I also just had [this] transition, and I was trying to find my support…that was the first time I really asked the question, ‘why is there pain in the world?’”

So Hayden once again began her fight to recovery and Spencer began his journey of discovery.

Answers didn’t come easily, but slowly, the searching process started to transform Spencer.

“[Looking back], I can’t say that I understand it or that there’s a purpose in it,” Spencer admits, “but I can say God is good and he is just. Maybe I don’t get to see why it makes sense or if it does at all, but I know that Hayden’s still here and His faithfulness was shown through that.”

And it’s through that search for answers, Spencer began to find meaning in the struggle.

“Now I’m somebody who is passionate about people who are on the margins whether that be people with disabilities or people on the streets experiencing homelessness. That’s what I gravitate toward…. because of my sister.”

“I want her to experience love and community, and I want to work so others can have that as well.”

That’s why Spencer chose to spend his first post-grad year as a Jill’s House Fellow, making that happen for kids with intellectual disabilities.

For Spencer, the fellowship is more than just a year of learning about himself, it’s a year of learning to be selfless.

And it’s in that space of selflessness that he is free to be more confident and affirming, more empathetic and vulnerable. Free to love people for who they are without expecting anything in return.

A little more like his sister, and lot more like his Creator.

The best version of Spencer.

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 © 2018 Jill’s House

Enjoy this story? Share it with your friends or read more like it!


 © 2018 Jill’s House