When I wrote about P.J. Ponder seven years ago, I ended my column with, "And one of the Ponders' big accomplishments? How about a picture of P.J swimming with a dolphin? And smiling."
That might not sound like all that big a deal, except that when P.J. was born, doctors weren't sure that he would ever be able to smile. Much less swim with a dolphin. And even much less, ever hold a job.
P.J. was born with Fragile X syndrome, the most common cause of inherited mental impairment.
"When I heard the news, it was the worst day of my life," his mother, Carmen Ponder said.
The Ponders were depressed at first, but soon discovered ways to make P.J.'s life meaningful. His dad, Rob, who'd been an Eagle Scout, started a Cub Scout den for special-needs boys.
"In his uniform P.J. knew he was just like all the other scouts," Carmen said.
The Ponders are particularly grateful to the Gwinnett school system for all their support, and give Hull Middle School a lot of credit for his success.
While at Hull, P.J. starred in a video created by Gwen Tatum and Chris Gegan to help parents transition their special-needs children into middle school.
"At Duluth High School he had an amazing and compassionate teacher, Robin Aubrey. She set the bar high for all of her special-needs students. But she saw something special in P.J. She always had faith that he would be able to accomplish much in his life. When he was 16, P.J. won at the county level in swimming and made it all the way to the state of Georgia Special Olympics where he won a silver medal," Carmen continued.
In 2010, P.J. graduated from high school wearing his Wildcat purple cap and gown. And a big smile.
But it didn't end there.
"GCPS has a wonderful job training program called STRIVE, which takes young adults like P.J. to work sites where generous companies like Lifetime Fitness, Siemens, Home Depot and T.J. Maxx provide irreplaceable opportunities for real-world work experience and on-the-job training skills," Carmen said. "By observing and doing, they learn to be on time, follow a schedule, work diligently and stay on task. These eager special-needs adults learn to become productive members of society. P.J. was hard-working and learned so much under the gentle guidance of teachers like Andy Clinansmith. P.J. had two very successful years in the program, so much so, that his most recent work site, offered him a 'real' job! He is popular with his co-workers and looks forward to 'going to work.' Upon receiving his first paycheck, he went around the house celebrating, high-fiving and fist-pumping all of us! Again, he's so proud of his accomplishments. Now he can't stop smiling. A lot."
Susan Larson is a writer from Lilburn. Email her at email@example.com.