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Doing Her Best

How growing up on a farm helped my sister-in-law learn to live independently

When my husband’s parents, John and Arlene Prater, welcomed their first child in 1960, they were surprised when the doctors told them she had Down Syndrome and that she would be taken to an institution.

I admire the strength they showed, at just 22 years old, when they demanded the doctors bring them their daughter so they could take her home.

Back then, society wasn’t sure what to do with people like Gena. My in-laws fought to get and keep her in school. They fought for her to be treated equally. They did a lot of fighting for their daughter. 

When Gena was 12, the family, which then included my husband, Jayson, moved to a farm near Hamburg, Iowa. They later had another son, Jerald.

Jayson says Gena was never allowed to shirk her responsibilities because of her special needs. “Mom and Dad never let her get away with doing less than her best,” he says.

Her chores included feeding, watering, and collecting eggs from the chickens; taking care of rabbits and dogs; working in the garden; and walking beans (not her favorite). She also did dishes, made beds, and folded laundry.

If Gena didn’t do a job to the best of her ability, she was made to keep trying until it was done correctly. “Mom would never let her say she couldn’t do something,” Jayson says.

“Even if it took her a few tries to get it right, she was always so proud when I told her she had done a good job,” Arlene says.

The lessons she learned on the farm made Gena feel confident, which led to greater independence over time. “She saw other people in her situation who couldn’t do certain tasks, maybe because they were never made to,” Jayson says.

As an adult, Gena achieved her dream of living on her own. She was so proud of her apartment and loved having her nephews visit and spend the night.

Gena’s determination also served her well when competing in the Special Olympics. One year at the state track meet, she was supposed to be signed up for the 50-meter walk but was mistakenly entered into the run. She lined up, took off when the starting gun fired, never looked back, and won the gold medal. 

Up until her death in 2011, Gena was determined to live her best life. She was fiercely independent, or “bull-headed,” as John would say. Living on the farm taught her that, too.

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