Effie Parks’ unexpected encounter in Mercerdale Park leads to hope and connection

November 17, 2020 | by Jenni Gritters

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The Parks Family | Photo by Kristin Elliot

On a blustery fall day in October, Effie Parks decided to take her son, Ford, to Mercer Island’s Mercerdale Park. Ford, who is four years old, loves to be outside in his red wheelchair with the wind on his face, and it took Effie years to build up the confidence to take him out. Still, the experience leaves something to be desired. When they walk through the park, Effie says other people tend to avert their eyes, shuffle away, and tell their children not to stare at Ford, who is disabled. Even when they say hi to their neighbors, Effie says they don’t often get a response in return.

But this day, October 25th, 2020, was different. As Parks wrote in a much-liked post on Nextdoor, an online community group:

Today at Mercerdale Park, a woman stopped in her tracks and gathered her 3 boys to extend an excited and genuine hello to my son. They engaged with him like he was just like every other little boy at the park. She brought her dog over to him so he could give it a pat. Nobody has ever done that. Ever. It was one of the most glorious human moments we’ve experienced as a family out and about in 4 years. Thank you so much to that woman and her boys. I wish more parents were raising their kids this way. To see disability as a diversity. I’ll never forget it.”

Effie and her husband, Casey, have lived on Mercer Island since March 2016. They brought Ford and their daughter Esme, who’s almost two, home from the hospital to Mercer Island. They navigated Ford’s disability – a neurodevelopmental disorder caused by a rare genetic mutation of the CTNNB1 gene with language and mobility among its many impacts – on this island. Mercer Island is their home, and it’s a beautiful place. But, Effie says, she’s always felt isolated.

“We can’t get into daycares, so I couldn’t meet families or do playdates,” she says. “Along with being consumed with raising a kid who had a genetic disease that nobody knew about, I was learning acceptance and changing my expectations. There were lots of reasons why I wasn’t able to find my place.”

Effie and Ford | Photo by Kristin Elliot

Part of finding her place came when Effie started a podcast called Once Upon a Gene, where she talks about her family’s journey and interviews others who are navigating life while living with a rare disease. Through the podcast, she hopes to remind others that no matter how difficult or isolating the path may seem, they are not alone.

The woman who approached Effie and Ford at Mercerdale Park that day likely didn’t know any of this, and she may not have realized how much of an impact she’d made on the Parks family, either. Effie says Ford was shining, happy to be involved, and responding directly to the woman, her boys, and dog. Effie was so overwhelmed that she could barely even say thank you.

“I was floating and enjoying the moment, because Ford was finally involved in a situation with a stranger … who didn’t seem sad or like she felt sorry for him,” she said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it all day, it meant so much to me.”

Effie isn’t sure why she posted about the experience on Nextdoor, which she says can be a fairly negative place. But, she thought, “Maybe I’ll run into this woman again. Maybe I can find her.” And Effie wanted everyone else in her community to know that it’s okay to talk to kids with disabilities and rare diseases; she has a strong, supportive community online, but she wants to have that kind of community in person, too.

“We need to start including kids like mine in these diversity conversations,” she says. “Ford is so awesome. I didn’t grow up with anyone like Ford … It’s hard for us to get out and about, hard to include us in social situations. But I hope in this beautiful, small community, we can break down barriers and open up a line of communication.”

The response to Effie’s story has been staggering; the post now has nearly 500 likes and over 60 comments on Nextdoor, and she says she’s received dozens of offers for playdates, babysitting help, and socialization at the park. In a time of social isolation, the whole experience made her feel invigorated with hope. 

So if you see a kid like Ford at the park this month, speeding along in a red wheelchair with a shock of bright blond hair, Effie says she hopes you’ll say hi: “If you notice that your kid is staring, or you notice yourself staring, wave and say hi, or ask a question. Encourage your kids to play with my son. That would mean everything to me. Be curious. Parents like me are an open book. Trust me, we didn’t understand this either, and we’re learning along with you.”