I love it when a kid catches up to his dreams.
Justin Cwiklinski is 10. He lives with twin brother, Cody, and their parents in Depew. Two weeks ago, he got his black belt in tae kwon do.
It is a big deal for someone his age. It is a bigger deal for Justin. When he was a year old, his parents – Chuck and Lisa – were told their twin boys had cerebral palsy. They would probably never walk, maybe never talk.
So much for that diagnosis.
At a glance, Justin seems like a lot of 10-year-olds – skinny, eager eyes, easy smile. He speaks clearly and walks with just a slight hitch. But it takes extra effort to lift his right arm and leg. He needs more time than most kids to learn.
As part of the black belt test, he wrote about the four-year journey:
“When I first started, I was very shy and could hardly lift my leg to kick. I was well aware that I was different from the other kids, but the instructors encouraged me.”
He wrote about the time he tried to break a board with his hand.
“There were so many people there, yet the room was silent as I tried over and over again. After what felt like forever, I finally did it. The silence turned to the loudest cheers I had ever heard.”
This is the season of giving, receiving and counting blessings. The cloud of 20 innocents in Connecticut whose counting stopped on Dec. 14 hangs over us. Hearing about Justin Cwiklinski was, for me, a glimmer of sun through those clouds.
Being a newspaper columnist opens doors. I cross paths with people I otherwise would not meet. I felt privileged to recently spend time with the Cwiklinskis. Lisa is a claims examiner, Chuck an environmental scientist. They stagger their schedules, so one or the other can be home with the boys.
At one point, Cody – who is not as able as Justin – got over-excited during my visit and fell on the carpet. His father scooped him up and held him on his lap until he settled down. The twins have physical challenges, but they are not shortchanged when it comes to love.
“There were times Justin got discouraged,” Lisa told me. “We'd talk about it, and by the next class, he wanted to prove everybody wrong.”
Justin wrote: “Having confidence in yourself is more important than how others judge you ... Believe in yourself and there will come a day when others will have no choice but to believe in you.”
Justin last year won the fourth-grade spelling bee at Cayuga Heights Elementary. He plays saxophone in the school band. He charts the weather on his computer. The confidence to do all of it, his parents told me, started with every labored step he took in tae kwon do.
His journey, and Cody's, has been theirs as well. “Our kids have made us stronger, better people,” Lisa told me. “They taught us that the only disability in life is a bad attitude.”
Congratulations, Justin. And keep believing.