After 15 years working with college students, Craig Peterson reached a crossroads. “What’s next? Do I have an additional purpose in this life?”
Feeling financially secure, he looked past his accomplishments and focused instead on his personal values. “I want to make a difference.”
That months-long reflection led to what would be become a life-changing decision. “I want a family.”
To turn that vision into reality – sooner than later, he listened to the wisdom of his adoption specialist. “I will consider a sibling group. I am open to children of a different race. I will accept their special needs.”
Within six months Craig’s diligence as a single gay man paid off. A multi-county team selected him to parent three African-American brothers and their older sister who lived in a separate foster home. Ashley, Andrew, Michael and Brandon all had been diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. And as a result, each had permanent brain damage.
At last his moment arrived.
Without knowing, Craig had just become the first openly gay man to adopt through the Indiana foster care system in 1998. That was never his intention in telling the truth. He simply wanted to be a father.
But Ashley’s foster parents had a different plan. They immediately went to the local media and raised objections about a gay man adopting children. Within days the decision to place Ashley with her brothers was overturned.
Prejudice trumped ability.
Hate overshadowed love.
Although Ashley’s three brothers came to Craig’s home and immediately thrived, she lost all contact. Eight months later the mind-blowing story broke. The foster father had been routinely molesting her for the past three years. Unchecked power. Secrets. Cover-up.
A year-and-half-later, she was finally joined the Peterson family – for good.
For the next 20 years, Craig put his children first – while becoming a self-employed jack-of-all-trades to provide for a family that now totaled six. No challenge was too large: speech delays, learning difficulties, PTSD, bipolar disorder and severe attachment issues.
All that talk of servant leadership from his college days rang louder than ever.
Craig actively led the elementary school PTA, jumped first-feet into numerous volunteer role with Special Olympics and became a tireless advocate for children with mental health problems. Always willing to share his family’s story and inspire others to act.
Although Craig’s children all ran cross country in middle school – with a super-sized dose of parental encouragement, his most impaired son was the one to find his niche. Andrew thrived on the routine. He ran with heart and guts – proving that his intellectual disability wouldn’t define him. And over the next seven years, he found incredible success – even becoming his high school’s first four-year varsity letter winner in cross country.
Sadly, each day at school was the same. Students walked by Andrew like he didn’t exist. Some laughed and called him names. Thankfully, Special Olympics provided an extended family, a place to lead and the opportunity to feel valued.
With his father as his coach, Andrew trained non-stop over a decade and dominated the 1500 Meter. At the Special Olympics USA Games in Princeton, New Jersey in 2014 and Seattle in 2018, he won Gold twice – improving his personal best to 4:42. In March he will take to the international stage and represent the United States at the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi.
Meanwhile, Andrew found a new challenge. Marathons. His first two races turned painful as he learned to pace himself for the entire 26.2 miles. Not an easy task for anyone, much less a young man who doesn’t conceptualize the meaning of time.
Then he surprised everyone and ran a 3:05:44 – narrowly missing qualification for the prestigious Boston Marathon. When race organizers offered Andrew a charity bib, he politely declined, “I want to make it on my own.” Six months he did just that with a time of 2:57:33 – nearly eight minutes under the standard.
But Andrew is more than a dedicated runner who logs 4000 miles per year. He’s found his voice. And with a story to tell, he’s addressed 100,000 students throughout the country about respect and ability. Speaking entirely from memory with a unique presentation style, he instantly reaches his audience. His story of an underdog turned national champion deeply touches men and women alike.
Real. Ambitious. Inspiring. Accomplished yet unassuming.
Thousands have noticed. For two consecutive years, Andrew was a finalist to appear on the Runner’s World cover – becoming the top vote getter in year two. His fans covered all 50 states.
Recently, ESPN profiled Andrew in its coverage leading up to the Special Olympics USA Games. After the 20-minute documentary received high praise for its message of inclusion, it was extended to 30 minutes with coverage from the Seattle Games.
Click here to watch a highlight: SC Featured: Special Olympics Runner Deserves Your Respect
One of the greatest displays of sportsmanship ever seen.
Meanwhile, younger brother Michael developed into an excellent sprinter in Special Olympics. Although he likes to brag about easily beating Andrew in a 100 Meter Dash, his true passion is music.
For five years while doctors tried unsuccessfully to find the right balance of medication to level his mood, Michael suffered severe depression – unsure of his desire to live. Cutting became a maladaptive behavior to ease his emotional pain.
Thankfully music eventually became his lifeline.
Michael sings with deeply personal feelings and complements his brother’s oratory. Together they leave a lasting impression of defying the odds and finding their place – with their father Craig narrating and pulling together the most important pieces of their message.
Building respect, embracing inclusion in a diverse world.
It’s a message for college students to hear, as they make a difference – one person at a time. Today, tomorrow and for the rest of their lives.