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Real life goes on: the Burkes talk about family life.

Frank and Marian Burke are the parents of Chris, a young adult with Down syndrome who is one of the stars of the TV program Life Goes On. We recently interviewed them while they were in Massachusetts at a McDonald's McJOBS Program graduation. We asked them to reflect on what they have learned that might be helpful to other parents.

EP: Your daughter told us that your strengths in bringing up Chris were a good marriage and positive attitudes.

Frank: We've had a wonderful marriage. It comes from cooperation and working together. This began even before the children arrived. I rose through the ranks in the police department by studying hard for the civil service exams. I would sit home with 3x5 cards with all the study material on them and Marian would run through it with me. Even something as absurd as putting a target up on the wall and dry firing -- that's without any shells in the weapon. Three times a year I had to qualify. If I hit a certain score, I would get two days off. Even this we did together.

Marian: And I would do the timing.

Frank: When Chris went away to school and Marian had a job opportunity, they asked her if she typed. We had never used an electric typewriter, so I went and borrowed one so that she could learn how to type. It's always been that nature of working together.

Marian: We've had positive attitudes all our lives. Frank and I are very happy together. I think that shapes the relationship that you have with your children. We have always been able to transfer that attitude to them. Their problems have been our problems; their joys have been our joys. I've always told my children that as long as you have your health, you have everything. You can scrub floors if you need to, but you will get along in life. I think they have taken that with them all the way. You have no idea how much pleasure they have given us in return. I am very proud of all of them. They are wonderful children.

EP: How helpful have your extended families been?

Marian: My dad was still alive when Chris was born and it was hard on him. He just couldn't believe it -- I think the previous generation did not understand disabilities at all. So what we did was completely on our own. Our own little family did everything for Chris. We weren't that close geographically to our brothers and sisters, and my mother had died.

Frank: The help we got from our older daughter Ellen, our younger daughter Ann, and Chris' older brother, who was 123 when Chris was born, was very important. Having older children in a family gives them a good part in handling your young child with a disability. Get them involved and make them feel important. Not only that -- it shows that you're not disregarding them and showering all the attention on the other child that no doubt needs more of your help.

EP: Did you friends help you?

Frank: Socially, we would go everywhere with Christopher; we shared our problems with our friends. By sharing with our friends, it became a little lighter for us. Our children did the same. Our older boy took Chris all over, played basketball with him and took him to games. The girls took him all around with them when they were home. It got a little more difficult when they all went off to college. That's when we found out that he required a lot of socialization which was missing because his brother and sisters were gone.

EP: Where did you get direction in bringing up Chris?

Marian: We didn't know exactly how to handle Chris except that we gave him at home what we had given our other children. We made sure he performed properly from day one. He learned how to handle situations very, very early on. It was wonderful to see him develop. I take a lot of pride in it and so does Frank.

EP: Some mothers might not have known that Chris needed a speech therapist.

Marian: I can't imagine mothers not knowing when their child needs something special. Chris had trouble speaking. I found speech therapists all over the city. They might have been students who were learning to teach in the special education classes.

There was a very good speech therapy clinic in our neighborhood that not only children with disabilities went to, but actors and actresses who were learning to perfect their speech also went there. We took Chris to Merrimack College. Chris went to Kennedy Child Study Center, Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital, anyplace that I could find someone interested in giving Chris that little extra help. I was all so new to us.

EP: What other outside help was available to you at the time?

Frank: Today, the early intervention programs are very prevalent. But such programs didn't exist. By trial and error, and with the strong help from our children, we developed our own early intervention.

EP: Some parents might be inclined to spoil their children with disabilities. What would you say to them?

Frank: One thing we realized early on was that we couldn't spoil Chris. We had to train him and prepare him for that harsh and sometimes cruel world out there. He may be cute at home but when he walks out that door, that's something different. So we worked very, very diligently on his table manners, his appearance, his hygiene and things of that nature so he wouldn't be rejected at face value as soon as he appeared on the scene. His conduct matches any of our other children. It was through a joint effort. We realized that he had enough obstacles to overcome without being an unpleasant kid.

EP: What do you, as parents, expect from your children, including Chris?

Marian: I just read an article recently that impressed me. It said that it takes as much effort to make your children misbehave as it does to teach your children to behave. I think that's very important for all parents to realize. They must demand proper behaviour from their children.

EP: What special virtues do you think are necessary in raising children today?

Marian: It takes a tremendous amount of patience. It takes a tremendous amount of drive on your part to make sure that they continue to work hard. Belief in them is important. You have to believe that they can do anything. I think a number of people have proven that -- and not just Chris -- but a number of people have proven that no matter what -- if you have the drive and that love, that patience, that understanding from the proper people, you will achieve your goal. I think we've proved that today.

EP: Did you always have such confidence in Chris and his abilities?

Marian: I never worried that Chris would not perform. I really didn't. I could see from day one that he was extremely capable. As he went through school, I tried to make people realize that Chris had a very special talent for handling children and especially children with disabilities. They almost laughed at me but I never gave up on that idea. Chris did eventually obtain a job at the board of education in New York City in a school for those with multiple disabilities. So, he was achieving what we knew he could do by working with not only children, but children with disabilities -- he was as happy as could be. He would still be there and be very happy, but something like Life Goes On really appeals to him.

EP: Did your positive attitudes inspire Chris to get the job on Life Goes On?

Marian: Chris got the job on Life Goes On by himself. He wrote the important letter to Jason Kingsley when he saw Jason on TV. It was Jason's mother Emily, in turn, who picked up on it and wrote back to Chris. If he hadn't written that letter to congratulate Jason, he would not be where he is today. He's been a very interesting young man to watch -- and a very determined one.

EP: Have any episodes from your family life been used on the show?

Marian: Yes, there was the one program where the family had a baby girl with Down syndrome and, in one scene Chris came in and congratulate the father; that was taken right from our live. Our closest friends, Jim and Kay had known Chris from day one. They loved him dearly and took care of him; he was back and forth to their house. They baby-sat from him and they always thought he was fantastic. Their first grandchild was born with Down syndrome. They were completely and utterly devastated -- they just could not handle it. Jim came over to borrow something one evening and Chris happened to be in the living room. When he saw Jim, he said, "Oh hi, Jim. How are you? Hey, I hear she has Down syndrome. Isn't that great?" Jim just looked at him and didn't know what to do. I think it turned Jim around. He looked at Chris and finally said, "Yeah, Chris, it is." This is what made Jim and Kay step back and take a second look at everything. They went forward from there on. It was wonderful.

EP: That's a great story. Were there any other situations taken from your private life?

Marian: No, the rest was very general. That was the one we zeroed in on because we really knew what it was like to have a child with Down syndrome. We knew how you would comfort others who had the same experience, so I think that was the most important.

EP: Did your faith guide you as parents?

Marian: Religion got us through so much, really. In fact, I have a paper from Elizabeth Ann Seaton -- I went to school with the Sisters of Charity all my life -- and she has always been very close to me. Believe me, I pray to her. We placed a relic of Elizabeth Ann Seaton on Chris when he was born and I swear to God, that's why he's as good as he is today. I had such faith in that woman. She was a mother herself, so she understood. It gets you a long way. Religion plays a very important role in your life, no matter what. Whether you have a child with a disability or not -- it helps a great deal. I'm very happy to have my faith.

Frank: When you're backed into a corner and you have no place else to turn, I think you're at a loss if you don't have religion to guide you.
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Title Annotation:parents of Chris Burke, actor with Down syndrome appearing on television show "Life Goes On"
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Article Type:interview
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Previous Article:On display: your child is being humiliated.
Next Article:A story for parents to ponder.

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