Emma Hopkins: Running Right Over the Challenges She Faces
Life isn’t easy for 17-year-old Emma Hopkins. At first glance, she seems no different than any other teenager – beautiful and bubbly with a smile that never seems to go away. But after a bit of time you notice she’s a little different. Emma has Autism. While she’s communicative, social and affectionate, she has developmental delays that will always set her apart from the rest. But what really sets Emma apart from the rest isn’t what she can’t do, it’s what she can do, wants to do, loves to do.
Run, and You’ll be Done Faster
Emma didn’t start running because she wanted to. It all began with a daily walk around the block. Emma’s mom Cyndee Hopkins is a writer, speaker and a special needs advocate. One of her concerns is that special needs children are often unfit and overweight – potentially aggravating all of their other issues. Every day at 4:00 Cyndee would ‘drag’ her daughter outside for a walk.
“The whole neighborhood knew when the Hopkins girls were out because you could hear Emma complaining and the two of us arguing the whole way,” she says. “After about a year of this, I said ‘Well missy, run and you’ll be done faster!’ Suddenly she started running and has been in love with it ever since. She says it feels like she’s flying.”
Soon after, Emma began competing in Special Olympics – and winning. As she made the transition to high school, Cyndee really wanted her to have the chance for just a bit of the typical high school experience. She approached school officials and the track coaches about Emma practicing with the school’s track team.
Her commitment to running – an hour every morning and two hours each day after school – quickly impressed her coaches. After practicing with them for a while, they wanted to reward her hard work by having her race at a meet.
Cyndee likens what came next to an Oprah Lifetime Movie. “Emma was positioned to run the 400 in the inside lane,” she says. “As the race begins, all of the kids from 11 schools are cheering and running alongside her in the infield. I thought that was a sweet show of support.”
Cyndee continues, “As Emma comes around the home stretch, I realize that the other seven runners – who do not know her – are slowing down to let her win. After winning the race, she turns to the other girls that competed and says ‘Boy, I really smoked you didn’t I?’ Not exactly good sportsmanship, I know, but everyone couldn’t have been happier for her.”
When She’s Not Running…
But running isn’t Emma’s only passion. She loves to scrapbook and has volumes and volumes of completed books to prove it. How did she get started with scrapbooking? Enter one of the most important people in Emma’s life – Big Sister Angela.
Emma’s father died when she was just 12 days old. This left Cyndee Hopkins alone with Emma and three older brothers all under the age of six. Knowing how important it was for the boys to have a male role model in their lives, they all participated in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. According to Cyndee, it was an amazing experience for all of them and the Hopkins Family still connects with the Bigs and their extended families every year at Christmas.
But Cyndee didn’t think to enroll Emma in the program until a match specialist said something that really hit home. “She said it was important for Emma to have her own person in her life, someone that was not me. Because of her autism and because I was the only parent she’d ever known, it was important for her to spend some time away from me and create her own relationship.” Emma was eight years old at the time.
Angela Dikes was a big sister long before she joined the organization as a Match Support Coordinator at Lone Star’s headquarters. She became Emma’s Big Sister nine years ago and had a little sister before then.
As the first visit between Angela and Emma ended, Cyndee walked Angela out to her car and asked if she still wanted to do this. “She was ready to let me off the hook if I wasn’t able to handle a Little with special needs,” says Angela. “I told her there was no way I was going to change my mind. She was just beautiful, with a beautiful smile. She was so excited I was there and kept saying ‘Angela is MY big sister.’ How could you not fall in love with that?”
Angela has shared her love for scrapbooking with Emma. Their favorite activity is going out for dinner then spreading their supplies out all over the table to work for hours. One of the gifts Angela gives Emma each year for Christmas is a few completed pages that show all they’ve done together that year. Emma now has three huge books filled with those memories.
Scrapbooking also helped make Emma’s 16th birthday a memory she will never forget. Mom Cyndee wanted to have a party and invite all the girls on the track team, but she knew these kids would need something to do. She enlisted Angela’s help to put together a scrapbook party. The entire team, along with several members of Emma’s Younglife Group created pages to put in a giant birthday book for Emma.
“These girls really embrace her,” says Angela. “They’re sweet to her and have accepted her as a member of the team. This has been such a good social opportunity for Emma.”
…She Runs Some More
In addition to being Emma’s mentor, Angela has also become one of her biggest fans – cheering her on from the sidelines as she runs and becomes something of a celebrity. As Emma started running track more and more, Cyndee wanted to address the problem she had of not being able to tie her shoes tight enough for a race. Big Brothers Big Sisters was able to once again help out the Hopkins family. Tom Frazier, Vice President of Individual Giving and Major Gifts, put her in touch with the head of shoe design for Nike. With Cyndee and Emma’s input, Nike created a prototype shoe that uses a dial to tighten and loosen the laces – in purple, Emma’s favorite color.
The designer that created Emma’s shoes is the same one that designs shoes for endurance athlete and 2009 ESPY Award winner for Best Male Athlete with a Disability Jason Lester. Part of Jason’s Journey for a Better World 4,800-mile transcontinental tour last spring took him to Dallas. He asked Emma to run with him. Mom said it was a sweet, sweet experience that Emma will never forget.
But the thing Cyndee remembers most about the experience didn’t happen at the event, but rather when Jason asked her to run. As Emma walked away from him, she muttered to herself, ‘I can probably run faster than him.’
That pretty much sums up how this unique teenager rolls… or runs.