GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — The love Austin Robertson has for his younger brother is evident by the way he says his name.
The 15-year-old’s whole face lights up when he says, “Sage.”
Austin is developmentally delayed, has mild cerebral palsy and is in the low-incidence disabilities class at Rainbow Middle School.
Sage is 11 years old and wise beyond his years. He is in fourth grade at John Jones Elementary and has a fierce allegiance to his brother.
Some students are afraid of those with disabilities, but Sage isn’t. He embraces them.
“Some people are scared to associate with them,” Sage said. “They avoid them because they’re different.”
That prompted Seth to depict his brother and some of the students at his school in a drawing used for a T-shirt to raise money for specialized playground equipment at the middle school.
The drawing depicts Ethan, who is in a wheelchair. Next is Austin holding a sign that says “fun day.” Then there is Kera, with a piece of paper in her hand, and Shea, with pretty red hair.
Beneath the drawing is a Bible verse that Sage says expresses how he feels.
“Beloved, let us love one another, 1 John 4:7.”
The drawing is special for Sage.
“I like to draw, and I just felt like it was something I needed to do,” he said.
A smaller drawing on the front left side of the T-shirt says, “I love special friends,” and shows two children holding hands, dancing. One is in a wheelchair.
For Sage, the drawing is a way to encourage others to treat everyone the same.
Sage expresses his love for Austin in many everyday things. He helps Austin wash his hair and get dressed. Each has his own room, “upstairs,” Austin says.
Sage has twin beds in his room, and it isn’t unusual to find the boys asleep in Sage’s room in the morning, their mother, Jamie Robertson, said.
The first thing Austin wants to do when he gets home from school is change into one of his favorite “Wiggles”T-shirts.
“Who do you want to wear today, Austin?” his mother asked.
“Greg,” — one of the characters on the children’s television show — Austin said.
The brothers play after school — Austin riding the three-wheeled bicycle he got for his birthday, and Sage riding his.
“You make sure you don’t go in the what?” Jamie asked. “Road,” Austin replied.
Austin loves to dance and went to a Halloween party. As his mother explained, he chimed in, “Suit.”
“He wore a suit,” she said. “He loves costumes.”
Even though his responses usually are just a single word, it’s a reminder to Jamie and her husband, Chad, that Austin understands many things.
“It’s in there,” she said. “We just have a hard time getting it out.”
Austin has come so far, she said, from the first prognosis after he was born.
Austin weighed 10 pounds, 1 ounce at birth. He was in the birth canal too long and was deprived of oxygen, Jamie said.
He had brain damage, and doctors gave the Robertsons little hope for any significant development.
They were not immediately sure of the extent of his brain damage, but they knew it when he had seizures the night he was born.
“They said he would never crawl, walk or sit up,” she said.
He walked at 18 months, and now he is physically strong. His muscles did not develop normally and his speech and motor skills were affected.
“God has just blessed us with people that have a love and heart for Austin,” Jamie said.
He first went to Hand-in-Hand, a day care for children with cerebral palsy, then began at The Learning Center at 3 years old.
He started school at John Jones, is about to graduate from Rainbow Middle and will attend Gaston School this fall.
“It was our goal that he would one day take care of himself,” Jamie said.
Even though Austin will be going to another school and will not benefit from new playground equipment, it is a project that is important to Jamie.
“The Lord put it in our hearts,” she said.
She said they got the idea for a fundraiser and talked with Austin’s teacher, Becky Moore, about what was needed most.
They began the fundraising drive for the playground equipment at their church, Aurora Missionary Baptist Church, where Chad is pastor. Jamie said another parent, Misty Bearden, was able to get the T-shirts printed, and her church, Flow of the Spirit Church, also made a donation.
Typically, middle schools do not have playgrounds, so there is very little for Moore’s students to do.
“They can walk around the track or throw the ball, and that’s about all,” Moore said.
Moore said she doesn’t see a need for an elaborate playground, but handicapped accessible, adult-size swings, are needed. The students typically in her class are both physically and mentally limited, and many are autistic.
“We need something designed for special-needs students,” she said. “Someone with autism loves the swinging motion.”
The T-shirts have been sold for $15 at Rainbow Middle and John Jones, and a recent Thursday was designated as a day to wear them.
Students also could pay $2 to wear sweat pants or a hat — not in the school’s dress code — as part of the fundraiser, Assistant Principal Allison Amos said.
They raised $150 just through that project in one day, Amos said.
The T-shirt sales so far have raised about $1,200, and more donations are coming in.
Austin was wearing his shirt and looked adoringly at his mother, wearing hers.
He grabbed the front of his shirt and pressed it to hers.
“Match,” he yelled, as he kissed her on the cheek.
It’s a big responsibility to care for Austin, Jamie said. But Sage already knows it will someday be his responsibility.
“I’m going to be the big brother,” he said. “I know someday it’ll be up to me to take care of him.”
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