I need to give a well-deserved shout out to Monica Simons, the high-energy mom of Jon Thomas Robertson, the terrific seventh grader and 2007 National Make a Difference Honoree Day I’ve been posting about recently. 

That’s Monica at left with JT waiting to shoot their ‘Good Morning America’ interview.

I’ve interviewed lots of parents raising responsible kids in light of significant personal challenges, including special needs. I’m convinced that behind every great kid, there’s a terrific parent(s) guiding them and sharing priceless lessons in humility, civility, compassion and the value of hard work and keeping your word. These are stellar parenting efforts delivered complete with tough love and lots big hugs. In the case of Jon Thomas, that again appears to be the case.
Monica Simons is a gutsy, single mom of meager means, trying hard to raise her spirited, activist son in one of the poorest counties in New York, and in light of some pretty scary stats for Cuba teens. She’s determined to buck those statistics and see JT graduate high school, go on to college and make something extraordinary of his life. Her determination is clear in her passionate words and actions. It’s hard not to believe this mom will realize her big parenting dreams. 
I’m rooting for both mother and son.
Simons returned to her childhood hometown of Cuba, New York from Florida after a difficult divorce because she wanted her son to experience the benefits of extended family and social diversity. As a preschooler, JT attended a Head Start program that included children with disabilities and diverse ethnic cultures. Those experiences and friendships have deeply impacted his young life and fueled JT’s on-going yearly October mission to to make a difference for his peers. 
JT’s mom is a proud woman, easily moved to emotion when talking about her son. She shares some good parenting insight and powerful antidotes for combatting those tough county stats:
  • “I have no cable, no land-line phone, and no car,” says Simons who is a part-time school employee in Cuba. “We have family game nights and we walk everywhere.  We are closer as a result.”
  • “I’ve allowed JT to be a kid, while also seeing how much a child can impact a community,” Simons explains. “We forget what it’s like to see the world from a child’s perspective.  I try hard not to say no to JT’s ideas.  I always ask him why it is important to him. When JT came to me with his big idea, I didn’t say no,” she stresses. “I said I think that’s a great idea, now how are you going to do that? I also taught JT that when you give a promise, you are giving your word.  That is your honor, your character and your integrity.”
  • “Encourage your children to ask questions and have an opinion.  If you child has a passion, what’s the harm in letting him/her explore it?  It’s all about using all those teachable moments, but too many parents today don’t take the time.  They are too busy trying to keep up with the Joneses to really talk to their kids.”
  • “I try hard to instill good values in JT that will last a lifetime, because I’m not always going to be here. I have only a few precious years to teach him the basics and ingrain them in him so he will be successful in life no matter what.”
  • The lessons in diversity this mom sought for her son have returned to her. “JT keeps me honest and true to myself as a parent.  He’s taught me how to look at other people in less fortunate circumstances differently. He continues to surprise me,” Simons admits. “JT hates the limelight and he doesn’t think he’s a hero.  So I told him that he’s an inspiration to others, and for people who care and hold basic good values close, he represents hope.” 
  • JT is surrounded by a great extended family with solid values and morals.  He’s not the train kid with us.  We allow him to be himself.”
For several years, her preteen son has been determined to make a difference in the lives of others.  Monica Simons is determined to make a big difference in his. “My grandmother always said you should treat everyone like family because you never know who you are standing next to. It doesn’t take much to make a difference in someone’s life.  Give people a smile and a kind word,” Simons adds. “Seeing the large crowd of people who attended her funeral had a profound effect on me.” 
It’s a valuable lesson in humanity Simons has passed on to her son.
This Saturday, on National Make a Difference Day 2008, Jon Thomas Robertson will again be part of the action, sharing candy bags and big grins with nearly 1,000 passengers of the newly accessible Arcade and Attica Historic Railroad. It’s the realization of a big dream years in the making, one fueled by the grit, determination and huge heart of one special young man and a single mother devoted to the doctrine of good parenting, and to her terrific young son.
So far, Monica Simons parenting commitment appears to be paying off in spades.
For more information, visit: jtsmission.org or
(Photos courtesy of Matt Williamson/Matt Williamson Photography 2008. Used with permission. All rights reserved).