This guest blog is by Jessica McLaughlin, a mom, teacher, writer and autism advocate. Jessica is a co-chair for the Treasure Coast Walk Now for Autism Speaks.
On October 25, 2014, I became an eternal Jake Owen fan. I’m not talking about going all starry-eyed over Jake Owen the country music superstar. I’ve liked him for a couple of years. I’m not even talking about Jake Owen the hometown boy giving back to the community. I’m talking about being a devoted fan to Jake Owen the compassionate human being.
Let me explain. It all started a couple of years ago when Autism Speaks put out a call for help with the Treasure Coast Walk. The behavior tech in my daughter’s self contained autism class, Val, and I decided that WE would step up and take on the roles of chairing the event. It was about the same time the Jake Owen Foundation donated money to Autism Speaks and asked that it benefit the Treasure Coast. I believe that our persistence and his donation proved that there was interest and need for an autism voice on Florida’s Treasure Coast.
Fast forward and the community walk Val and I run has had a successful couple of years. We had been selected by the Jake Owen Foundation to receive a donation again this year! Yay! We were even invited to his charity concert and the VIP event. Double yay! Best of all, Jake wanted to meet my daughter.
In planning her visit, his staff said they understood that sometimes crowds and music can be overwhelming to people with autism. We set it up so she could meet him at the VIP event and then my husband would take her home and Val and I could stay for the concert. She could meet Jake, take a picture, etc. I could do some positive PR work with the photo to promote our walk in April.
Needless to say, like anything with autism, it didn’t work out quite like we planned.
Throughout all the lines, crowds and noise just getting to the VIP event, my daughter was a trooper. It took a while and when she started to have a rough spot, I took her out of line for a minute to calm her down. A very nice officer saw what was happening and ushered us to the front of the line. That’s when it happened—when I became an eternal fan of Jake Owen. He was standing by his trailer taking pictures with what seemed like an endless line of fans. He posed and smiled and greeted each person with all the enthusiasm you’d expect to find on first night of the tour, instead of the last night. While we were waiting in that line, Jake saw my girl and his face lit up. He’d smiled before, but this one was special. It was tender and genuine and something passed between them that deeply touched my heart. It was like he recognized a kindred spirit. He’d seen through the headphones and autism shirt and saw her. It felt like at that moment he realized this kid—my kid—and kids like her were why he was having this charity event.
Now I realize that sometimes my imagination gets the best of me. I started thinking, did he really see her? Did he really see something special in her—something memorable besides the autism t-shirt and headphones? Maybe he recognized someone behind us and that smile was for them. After all, we are in his hometown. It stands to reason that I’d imagined it. This is someone who saw hundreds of thousands of faces on tour. Why would he pick my kid out of the crowd and give her that genuine warmth?
I didn’t get a chance to find out right then if I’d imagined it or not. We went into the VIP event and found a corner to hang out away from the hustle and bustle. My husband and Val were on the lookout and as soon as Jake came in we’d get her, meet Jake and then she could go home. She made it a little while longer, but in the midst of the crowds and hubbub, she was on the verge of a meltdown. I made the executive decision to send her home. I believed that finding out if they were kindred spirits wasn’t meant to be.
As Val and I got back from walking to the car, we met Jake! We gave him the thank you bag from our kids at school and thanked him on behalf of Autism Speaks for his support. That’s when he confirmed that I’d be a fan of the empathetic human being he is for the rest of my life. He asked us about my daughter. I hadn’t imagined anything. He had seen her! That special smile was for her! The connection of kindred spirits was real.
Through all the hubbub and chaos of the event, I learned that fame doesn’t make a person jaded. Jake Owen the country music superstar, the hometown boy coming back to make the community better, is all part of a sincerely compassionate human being. He actually sees our kids for the unique people they are. That moment he shared with my daughter; how his face lit up and that warm, tender smile he gave her will never be forgotten. And that’s why I will always and forever be a fan of the man with a heart of gold—Jake Owen.