A Toy With a Mission

By Beacon Staff

POLSON – Cyndi Elliott is on a mission.

It’s a mission fueled by the love of her brother, David, who, the youngest of 10 children, was born with Down syndrome.

A pediatric occupational therapist, Elliott has worked for the past 16 years with parents and children facing a variety of challenges, from birth defects to injury-related disabilities.

But she’s long been troubled by the traditional approach that seems to focus more on the disability and less on the person’s unique abilities.

An artist and painter and musician, Elliott’s initial idea was to write a children’s book – in honor of her brother, who now is 40 – to illustrate what the “differently-abled” community can do, not what they can’t.

But when she couldn’t sketch to her satisfaction, she set out to make a series of figurines.

“Kids with different abilities will have something to relate to, because they’re strong and because they have hobbies,” said Elliott, sitting in her Polson studio. “And they will have something to talk about, rather than the one condition that is on people’s minds.”

“It’s as simple as saying you have blues eyes,” she added. “(Say) ‘I have cerebral palsy,’ and then move on. It’s a piece of them, but it’s not cerebral palsy boy.”

All the figurines have names, diagnoses, are dressed in attire she designed and painted, are engaged in an activity and have a story to tell.

The eight-inch figurines took three months to complete and another three months to sew attire for, clothe and paint.

“Lily,” she said, was born with a partial limb, wears a prosthetic and is a dancer.

“She has a very strong personality,” Elliott said as she laid her work out on the table and told each doll’s story.

Elliott expects each doll to evoke different emotions. But the figurines are also an expression of Elliott’s own views, life experiences and clients with whom she has worked.

“I try to be a unique person,” she said. “To me, I think it was self expression.”

There’s “David,” in honor of her brother, as a musician; “Mary,” a barrel racer who suffered an infant stroke; Robin, an artist with cerebral palsy; “Steven,” a bike rider with epilepsy.

It’s David, who she laughs has “Up,” not “Down,” syndrome, that Cyndi has the hardest time talking about.

As the closest sibling, Elliott took care of David, but said in her adult years she realized the opposite was occurring.

“He was really a significant person in my life because he taught me,” she said.

“He even impacted me in the way I dress, the way I play (music), the way I build my house, the way I live … There’s no worry. There’s no stress. There’s no resentment. He never held anger. He is the most loving person in my life. I could have fun in a paper bag and I know I learned that from David.”

David also influenced Elliott’s career.

“The big joke is that I’m supposed to be helping people because I am a therapist,” Elliott said. “I really would emphatically like this message to go out: That when people have a limit in one area of their lives, other areas take off and bloom.”

Her brother David was born with a hole in his heart, common in Down syndrome, thus the name of her company “wHOLEhearted.”

From the situation with her brother David, she would also like parents to realize the values a differently-abled child passes along to siblings.

“This is the best compassion college you can ever put your child through, the best human college or school you could ever give a person.” Elliott said. “David taught me how to already know the richness is right there in the room with another person.”

Elliott is pursuing a toy manufacturer and, additionally, wants to use the metal, polymer clay coated devices to open doors to further her message.

“If I could leave this earth and know that a few people heard this and it shifted their lives and that a few kids would be saved (from the attempt of being fixed),” she said. “If I can empower parents to have a diverse way of looking at this, maybe that’s a way a parent can feel powerful in a way where they feel powerless.”

You can reach Cyndi Elliott, OTR/L, wHOLEhearted, LLC, at [email protected]