It took nearly three years for Greg Konrad to take his first steps. The doctors had told his parents not to expect too much. But they hoped anyway. And on June 5, he took the biggest steps of his life: Now 19, Greg strutted across the stage at the USF SunDome to collect his prized piece of paper along with the rest of the graduates of J.W. Mitchell High School.
His parents strived to give him the typical high school experience, but they learned to drop the expectations of "normal" — a word they are loath to use.
Greg's life will never be normal.
But his future beckons.
• • •
Greg was born Dec. 6, 1988, the second child of Jim and Barb Konrad, who were then living in Detroit. Jim was in the Coast Guard. Barb split her time taking care of their son, Garrett, and working part time at night to supplement the family income.
"The whole pregnancy was fine. It was a natural birth," said Barb, 49. "There were no problems — nothing unusual."
In hindsight, however, it seemed the doctor knew something was amiss. "She was looking at his infant picture and I said, 'Look, he's already a brat. He's sticking his tongue out,' " Barb said. "What I didn't know then was that was one of the symptoms."
A couple of weeks later, the findings of the chromosome studies confirmed what the doctor suspected. Greg had Down's syndrome.
"It was such a shock," Barb said. "You have all these dreams and expectations, then everything changes. There's this grieving process that you go through. I remember nights lying in bed and hearing him wanting to get up to eat, and I just didn't want to get up."
The turnaround for Barb came when Greg, then 10 weeks old, returned to the hospital. Greg had croup and pneumonia and the doctor was asking, "Do you want us to do everything to save your child?"
"It was like a slap in the face. Of course we wanted them to do everything," Barb said. "That was my awakening. My acceptance. You realize, this is my child, and I have to deal with it.
"Now I don't know what we'd do without him."
• • •
The family moved around because of Jim's stint with the Coast Guard. That caused setbacks.
"Every time we moved," said Jim, 52, "Greg lost about a year of developmental skills."
The Coast Guard eventually brought Jim to Clearwater and the family settled in Pasco. Greg enrolled at Cotee River Elementary, where his parents decided that inclusion — where Greg would spend his day in a traditional classroom with "normal" students — was the way to go.
"When you have a special-needs child, you think, 'I want my child to be as normal as possible to fit in,' " Barb said.
But Greg had other ideas. He wanted to be in the self-contained classroom at Cotee with other students who had disabilities.
"I asked him why," Barb said. "He said, 'Mom, my friends are there.' "
"That's when you have to really look at what you want for your child. You have to think if what you're doing is for you or for them," said Jim, who now works with students with disabilities at River Ridge Middle/High School. "As you go down the road, you have to change your expectations. You do the best that you can for your child, but then you have to be realistic."
Realistic meant that Greg would remain in self-contained classrooms at River Ridge Middle and Mitchell High and would receive a certificate of completion, instead of a high school diploma.
Still, his parents were determined that Greg would have as close to a typical high school experience as was possible.
The small black photo album that Barb put together pretty much sums it up.
Senior year was a banner one for Greg.
There he is on the football field as the team manager, filling a green Gatorade bottle. There are other snapshots taken at homecoming and at prom with his girlfriend, Katie Pittard, 25, whom he met two years ago at a dance class for special-needs students. Another has him accepting his trophy as the Special Olympics Athlete of the Year. And in another one, he's all smiles dressed in cap and gown for baccalaureate and graduation.
Greg really blossomed at the school — especially during his senior year, said football coach Scott Schmitz. He made new friends, showed his sense of humor and proved that he could do the job of getting water to the players.
"I can't remember a time in the last two years that he hasn't been prepared," Schmitz said.
• • •
Now it's time for the next step:
That's what Greg calls it, although Marchman is really a technical school in New Port Richey that houses various programs, among them a community-based instruction program for adults with disabilities.
The idea is for Greg to learn how to care for himself — how to take the bus, how to know he has enough money to pay for his purchases at the store. The time will come for Greg to move on, probably to a group home.
Greg could stay at Mitchell High until he is 22. He has mixed feelings about leaving.
"I'm excited," he says one moment. "I'm going to college, just like my brother."
In the next moment, he doesn't look so sure.
"My friends are at Mitchell," he says with a frown. "I want to stay at Mitchell."
His parents feel the pull of that dilemma.
"Do we give him that little bit of normalcy that most kids who move on to go to college have, or do we leave him where he's at for three years?" asked Barb. "What's better?"
Greg will be back at Mitchell to help out come football season, coach Schmitz said. And when Greg is reminded of that, he smiles really big and asks, "Do you know coach Schmitz? I like coach Schmitz."
"He's going to be fine at Marchman," Schmitz said. "He was upset and timid when he came into that locker room the first time — and he turned out just fine. And he'll be fine at Marchman, too."
Michele Miller can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6251.