Breathe! Faith or fear? The universe is abundant and full of
These words of encouragement, written in pen and marker on
strips of construction paper, are taped on the cupboards and doors
of Kathy Lavin's Chicago home-a casual, inspirational complement to
her paintings that hang more permanently on the walls.
Painting is a hobby.
Life is a mystery.
And there's a divine timing to it all, Lavin says.
For Lavin, 43, this belief is as much a part of her life as the
supposed coincidences that have shaped it.
It hasn't always been easy for Kathy to embrace the divine
timing and mystery of life, though. It's a daily practice, she
As her children filter into the house and drop their things by
the front door, Michael asks, "What's been happening?" Kathy
replies, "Oh we've just been hanging out; Emily's doing her thing.
Emily, bright and curious like any 13-year-old, spends her time
after school captivated by a television show and a snack. Unlike
other teenagers, Emily struggles to communicate-an obstacle that
proves frustrating and heartbreaking for the Lavin family.
Kathy's first child was born with Down syndrome and, at first,
the young mother felt angry. But she says she has decided that
Emily's birth, paired with her years spent working in the field of
disabilities, might have been much more than a coincidence.
"I think you attract certain things in your life," she says.
After graduating from Boston College with a degree in human
development and education, Kathy started her career working with
people with disabilities in 1988.
First she oversaw group homes for Catholic Charities in her home
state of New Jersey. Eventually, at age 27, her path led her to
Chicago when she began doing research at the Institute on
Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at
She forged lasting bonds with people in the group homes and
those at work, though her managerial roles didn't require it.
"True to Kathy's nature, seeing what she could do and how she
could help people flourish was her motivation," says Selima Ani, a
At the same time, Kathy met Jack Lavin and they married in 1995.
A year later in May, Kathy graduated from the Jane Addams School of
Social Work. Emily was born in June. Kathy felt her life fill with
"Even being a professional, when it happens to you, it's a
totally different ballgame," she says. "I thought, 'I can't do
this. I cannot go back to working with people with
Lynda LaCombe, Kathy's friend since college, says Kathy has
always been open about the emotions she went through when Emily was
"Kathy loves Emily and delights in her, but she has always been
very honest that it was difficult," LaCombe says. "Being a person
who worked with adults with disabilities, she knew right away what
Emily's future could hold and she grieved for that."
In the years after Emily's birth, Kathy shifted gears from her
professional path and worked as an advocate and volunteer. Among
other endeavors, she became a founding board member of Belle Center
of Chicago, a non-profit organization serving the needs of children
with disabilities. She also had two more children, Michael, 11, and
Despite her love of Emily, "having Michael was a healing moment
for me. It proved to me I could believe in myself to create
something perfect," Kathy says.
Meeting the challenge of having a child with special needs only a
year into her marriage, Kathy's mother worried for her daughter's
relationship with her husband, Kathy says. But she and Jack have
In fact, along with a trip to the cardiologist and
ophthalmologist, Emily's doctor listed date nights for the parents
as part of the treatment plan for Down syndrome.
"So we date every Friday still," Kathy says.
After 12 years of volunteer work and raising her children, Kathy
is now the director of community relations at Neumann Family
It's easy for moms to get lost in their children, especially if
one has special needs, Kathy says.
"The biggest lesson for me is to say it's OK for me to put my
oxygen mask on first," Kathy says.
And with that, she went back to spelling "Thursday" for Katie,
asking Michael about his day and making sure Emily had everything
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