Tuned In Together: Why Our Foundation’s Family Conference Is So Important to Us

June ended in a big way for our family – attending our third national family conference hosted by the Foundation for Ichthyosis and Related Skin Types in Nashville!

We were thrilled to reconnect with other families around the world affected by this rare genetic skin condition whom we’ve gotten to know both online and in person over the last six years. There is nothing like being able to hug someone who has walked with you during some of most critical points of your child’s life.

What I expected out of the conference this year was much more about community and much less about education – mostly because we have an incredible medical team and, by this point, feel like we have a decent grasp on caring for Brenna’s skin.

But I was definitely wrong. There is always something to be learned, and it’s really a gift that so many people affected by ichthyosis can come together to share – from adults to new babies – because we never stop learning from each other!

Attending FIRST’s national family conference is always high on our agenda (we even flew to San Diego to attend half the conference in 2016, just so we wouldn’t miss it completely!) Here are the highlights of this year’s conference and why we love it so much…

The Community

Ichthyosis is rare, and Harlequin type is exceedingly rare – and that can feel isolating at times. Being with our HI community in person is beyond uplifting. These are some of the few people in the world who truly understand how we are feeling, what our worries are, what we are experiencing on a daily basis.

Coming together – to wrap each other in hugs, to learn and to share – is empowering for our kids and hope-filling for us as parents. At the conference, we reconnected with Hunter, who just graduated college (!!) and will be attending seminary in the fall, and with Lauren, who just graduated 8th grade and is heading off to high school. These two are some of the oldest in the world with Harlequin ichthyosis, and being with them is like looking into the future for me… a future that is so bright and filled with immense possibility!

We had SEVEN individuals affected by HI together this year – a tie for the all-time record, but the most we’ve ever gotten in a photo together!! There were two new sweet baby girls (6 and 9 months old!) who I was so excited to meet…how precious are they?

The Connections

It’s incredible how, over the course of just three days, you can connect with people on such a deep level that you feel like they’re family.

We met the Sterns in 2016 while doing a trolley ride in San Diego and have become so close since then! Our kids even sent each other jokes on video for a while 🙂

And watching Brenna and Lauren (age 14) together was one of the biggest joys of our whole weekend. They were inseparable! The only way we were able to get Brenna up in the morning was to tell her she’d get to see Lauren again! They sat on a trolley ride together, ran around the hotel together and ate nearly every meal together.

I think these two shared about a hundred goodbyes and hugs before we finally left…and I can’t wait to see them together again. Rare disease brought them together, and a shared love will keep that bond strong. (In fact, there have been several FaceTime episodes already…)

We also got to catch up with Daniel’s family! If you’ve been reading for a while, you may recall this beautiful boy’s story. While in the NICU four years ago, Daniel had contracted an infection and the physicians were planning to keep him comfortable until he passed. It was believed that death from his disorder was inevitable. BUT. God is bigger!

An amazing nurse began researching HI and found stories like Brenna’s, stories of hope. She showed Daniel’s medical team and pushed for treatment of his infection. One month later, this family became his forever family. And today, he is four and doing so well! He and Brenna spent a good hour one night chasing each other around with blow horns and playing Hide and Seek…

The Confidence

A major highlight of this year’s family conference was getting to hear Bailey Pretak as our keynote speaker. Bailey was born with a different type of ichthyosis than Brenna – hers is called lamellar ichthyosis. Bailey and her mom have paved the way for our community in so many ways and continue to offer unending support and encouragement to younger families.

Bailey is an amazingly talented singer, dancer and performer, and she has successfully competed in pageants and models. At the conference, she served as the very first keynote speaker ever who has ichthyosis herself!

Today, Bailey is a motivational speaker sharing about the beauty in difference and how to live a life of impact. (I highly encourage schools to reach out and invite her to share her powerful message! Connect with her here.)

It was heart-filling not only to hear Bailey’s testimony but to see the teen and pre-teen girls sitting on the edge of their seats, enamored and nodding along. What a wonderful role model our community has!

There is no doubt in my mind that witnessing others in our rare community who are doing amazing things has a life-altering impact on the younger children. It empowers them to try new things and to be more comfortable with who they are. The confidence of all the children during the conference was simply soaring.

Proof enough of that is the Talent Show! During each conference, a talent show is hosted and any child can participate. Brenna was quick to sign up this year to sing, and she knew her song choice immediately: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Obviously. What else would you sing in June??

Brenna kicked off the whole show and totally rocked it! We were insanely proud to see her confidence erupting from that microphone.

Now that we’ve returned and gotten back into the swing of things at home, I find myself missing the conference more than ever before…not only the incredible people, but the environment too. I didn’t quite realize how “on guard” I am, protective instincts flaring up constantly, until I wasn’t on guard. At the conference, there was an entire hotel filled with people who look like Brenna or who love people who look like Brenna. There are no stares, no double takes, no pointing or loud exclamations about my daughter’s appearance. Such a safe and welcoming environment is so rare, and I am yearning for it once again.

Yet, I am so grateful that this journey isn’t being done alone…and the memories of this year’s FIRST Family Conference will just have to last until 2020 now!

{Celebrating Beautiful} When Kids Know God Better than We Do, by Elizabeth Thompson

In blogging for the last 6 years, I’ve written about many different topics, but one theme that has remained constant has been my focus of sharing about how our family is discovering the beauty in difference and choosing to celebrate the incredible beauty all around us, and how we want to encourage others to do the same. After connecting with so many others with truly amazing stories, I started a guest blog series called Celebrating Beautiful, as it relates to beauty however it can be interpreted: parenthood, faith, your kids, an experience, home, and so much more.
I got to know Elizabeth Thompson after her first book was released by our shared publisher. She is clearly the ambitious sort because she released a second book a year later! 🙂 I was excited to get to endorse When God Says Go, and I know this message of what it means to trust God and his perfect timing will really impact a lot of people. *Elizabeth is giving away a copy today – just leave a comment to be entered to win!*
Here is Elizabeth Thompson on Celebrating Beautiful…

“God paint trees, Mommy.”

My two-year-old beams up at me, pointing a chubby finger at the thick trees shading our front lawn.

Her word choice surprises a laugh out of me. “You know what? You’re right! God did paint those trees.”

I swirl the word paint around inside, exploring the delightful image of God the great Artist, paintbrush in hand, painting trees—a touch of green, a knot in wood, a crooked limb.

But my daughter is not done expounding. Her finger sweeps the yard. “God paint wow-ee.”

“Yes, and the flowers too.” A fragment of scripture flits across my mind: Lift up your eyes . . . who created all these?

Again the little finger searches, points. “God paint grass. Pink grass.”

I laugh, not bothering to correct her colors when she’s in the middle of a theological epiphany. “Oh yes, God painted the grass!”

She tips her honey-and-sunshine curls back, squinting up. “God paint sky. Clouds. Sun. Moon.” She casts me a smug grin as if to say, Aren’t you impressed that I know so many “sky” words?

“Oh, yes, you’re right. God painted all of those things,” I say. “Aren’t they beautiful?” I glance up at puffy clouds drifting on a sea of blue. The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Hazel eyes dancing, my daughter flings her hands out wide, the grand finale: “God paint me!”

I am struck speechless. I catch her up in my arms and bury my face in her sweet baby-soap smell.

She pushes me back and insists: “God paint me! Mommy tummy!” Pudgy fists pressed against my chest, round eyes locked on mine, she awaits my response.

At last I find my voice. “Oh, yes, darling, God painted you in Mommy’s tummy.”

She snuggles in and squeezes tight.

Even now her words echo inside me, a gorgeous refrain: God painted me. Such profound insight, from one so young, so fresh from heaven. God made us, yes, but more than that: he painted us.

I can just picture it: The great Artist takes up his paintbrush, selects his canvas, lays out his paints—a thousand hues of possibility—and ponders: What to create today? Oh, I know!

Humming happily to himself, he dips his brush in paint and begins with just a single stroke: conception. Another stroke, a pause for inspiration—she’s taking shape now. A dab here, a curve there. He stops, debating: What color eyes to give? He mixes shades—a hint of green, a streak of caramel, a few golden flecks—there. Just right.

He chuckles to himself, picturing those eyes lit with wonder the first time they see a rainbow, a dandelion, a puppy. Now for the hair. He thinks for a moment, tapping his brush against his lip. I’ll borrow a little curl from her grandfather, a touch of auburn from her great-great-grandmother, a wild cowlick from her mother . . . oh, yes. Beautiful.

On and on he paints—long fingers, clumsy feet, knobby knees, crooked nose (because as any great artist knows, it’s the imperfections that make it perfect); and then he bestows talents: kindness, gentleness, a knack for organizing closets, a flair for piano and poetry—and when he is finished, he steps back, eyes shining.

Even more beautiful than I imagined, he thinks. Oh, yes. This is good. She is very, very good. In the corner, he signs his name.

For you created my inmost being;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed body;

all the days ordained for me were written in your book

before one of them came to be.

(Psalm 139:13–16)

Elizabeth’s new book, When God Says, “Go”: Rising to Challenge and Change without Losing Your Confidence, Your Courage, or Your Cool, encourages us to overcome fear, insecurity, and regret when God comes calling. She is also the author of When God Says, “Wait.” Elizabeth writes at LizzyLife.com about clinging to Christ through the chaos of daily life. As a minister, speaker, and novelist, she loves finding humor in holiness and hope in heartache. Elizabeth lives in North Carolina with her preacher husband and four miracle kids. They were totally worth the wait—and now they keep her on the go. You can connect with Elizabeth on her author site, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.