says Eliana Tardio with a smile. Her voice is sweet yet firm, her light brown eyes the window to a knowledgeable and kind soul. When asked why, this mother turned advocate lifts her right eyebrow, slightly tilts her head and adds “Sometimes people only see where I am now and they don’t know about the struggle I experienced when I first got here.”
Ten years ago, an 8-month-pregnant Eliana arrived from her native Bolivia to Florida. “I left my life in Bolivia where I had everything, to start a new life in Southwest Florida. I didn’t come here looking for a new job or better pay. I came here looking for better educational and inclusion opportunities for my son. I wanted to live in a place where everyone, even if you have an accent, has a voice and where anyone can use that voice to make changes.”
Currently, Eliana is the Director of the PEN-Project at the Family Network on Disabilities, a Federal program that educates families and professionals. However, when you meet her, she will introduce herself as the proud mother of Emir and Ayelén, ages 10 and 7, both born with Down Syndrome. As you talk to her she will probably share with you all about Ayelén’s latest fashion statement or Emir’s newest recipe.
“People that don’t know me think I’m very fragile or sweet, perhaps too sensitive, but I’m very strong, and I’ve never pitied myself or my children. When Emir was born, I obviously went through phases of pain, acceptance and confusion; but I always had the knowledge, the passion and the certainty of knowing that we were in the best place in the world for us.”
Eliana uses her voice to educate the world around her, to advocate for children with special needs and to teach parents that with hope and love, challenges are exactly just that, challenges. She says that people have the tendency of feeling sorrow for parents of children with special needs. “People assume life will be very difficult and that you are missing out on something” she says “ But I think that the unexpected experience of a diagnosis is a challenge that helps us grow and evolve, it makes us think about our own prejudice. There’s a line one crosses when one understands that a disability is not an enemy, and that’s when you learn to celebrate the individuality of your children and find the strength and inspiration to be happy.”
In her articles, and the photos and videos of her children Eliana opens up her life, humanizing Down Syndrome and acting as a source of support and inspiration for others. In return, a community of almost 35,000 members on Facebook open to her to share their stories, photos and the achievements of their children.
“I think that God put every hurdle in my life, so I could have the experience to tell others, I’ve been there, I know what it is like to come to a different country, I know how hard it is to be understood when English is not your first language. I know the difficulties of opening doors in a new country, understanding a diagnosis, having a child knowing that he will have special needs, and then giving birth to another without even imagining that child also has a disability. And now here I am, the Director of a non-profit organization, and my greatest achievement to land this position was letting the love of my children guide me, motivate and show me that everything is possible when we learn to see life with hope.”