Real Life…with the Hopkins family
“Real Life”… with the Hopkins Family
In 1983, Leslie Hopkins was adjusting to caring for her newest baby, Annie. When Annie was two months old, Leslie was told by her neurologist that her 17-month old, Stevie, would not live past three to five years of age. If he was lucky, Stevie might live to be 10 years of age. Stevie was diagnosed with Type II Spinal Muscular Atrophy, or SMA. As fate would have it, Annie received the identical diagnosis. So began this family’s journey – Leslie and her husband growing into empowered parents of two growing special needs kids, educating the community about their specific needs, plus embracing this uncommon opportunity with hearts and minds wide open. Little did Leslie know that the “wave” they would ride as a family would lead Annie and Stevie on an even more incredible journey called 3E Love.
According to Stevie, now 27, “SMA severely limits my physical ability in all regards. It obviously has affected my life in all arenas and how I go about my life. Having grown up with it, however, I do not know any other way of life. I have been blessed with this challenge.” And so, as Stevie sees it, success only comes from overcoming obstacles. He says he likes the person he is inside and out, and likes the challenges, too.
But, as Annie and Stevie grew, Leslie said, “I had to learn early not to feel sorry for myself or the children. We just moved on normally, but with a few changes to accommodate their therapy schedules and stages in development”. When the children were younger, Leslie tried to include them in everything possible that they could do or would enjoy. They went for karate lessons, art classes, and even started a bowling and baseball league for children with disabilities in their suburban Chicago area. Annie loved singing…so off to lessons she went. Stevie loved gaming, so Leslie would take him to stores that played magic cards. “I think it’s important for a child with or without disabilities to be active in something they love and enjoy and can do well at. It gives them a sense of belonging and accomplishment and helps them to move on in other things in their lives,” she said.
And as Annie and Stevie lived their lives soaking up all the childhood experiences they could, Leslie and her husband sat back and watched people react to Annie and Stevie. Both were engaging and bright. Once people got to know the two, they saw beyond the wheelchairs. “It was important to me that people got to know them for who they were,” she said, “and not just by their disabilities”.
She says she never really looked at her son and daughter as having disabilities. She never thought about what they couldn’t do. “We only had to figure out a way they could do the things they wanted.” She only got frustrated when other people treated them differently or like they were “out of place”.
She recalled Stevie’s first grade year. Stevie studied with the children in his class for the standardized tests they were to take. The night before the test, a friend whose son had Cerebral Palsy called Leslie to tell her that Stevie and her son would be excluded from the testing. With a call to the classroom teacher and principal, Leslie got to the bottom of it all and advocated they take the test with their classmates, in spite of the unfounded fear that their taking the test would pull down the scores for the school. Needless to say, they took the test. And Leslie brags, “Stevie got 99%.” What mother wouldn’t want to brag about that?
Growing up, Annie and Stevie never really complained about their disabilities. They just knew who they were, accepted it and moved on. They knew how to laugh at themselves. “In any life experience that may be conceived as negative, a little laughter can’t hurt”, Leslie said.
Stevie and Annie were very close growing up because they understood and knew each other, shared similar hopes, dreams, and yes, challenges. They were typical brother and sister especially when they were little. Leslie believes Stevie and Annie became even closer when they were both off at college together.
Stevie recalls, “we were a ‘package deal’, a very unique situation really. Best friends by birth.” And then there was the family business of 3E Love. 3E Love’s slogan is, “Embrace diversity. Educate your community. Empower each other. Love life.” According to 3E Love’s website, words that came from Annie, “3E Love is more than living disabled but is simply about living. Everyone has the freedom to live life. We challenge you to do what you love, because you’ll meet some amazing people along the way, and that, my friends, is how you’ll enjoy this ride that 3E Love calls, life.”
Annie created the symbol for a bar crawl t-shirt in college with the theme of sex and relationships for their dorm. “We lived in a private dorm for students with disabilities and a few of us were dating our PAs,” Stevie said. Annie was always in charge of dorm t-shirt design and with the help of a friend created a symbol that melded the Universal Symbol of Access – the universally recognizable wheelchair symbol seen on accessible parking signs and restrooms, with a heart for the wheel of the wheelchair stick figure. This was in 2004. At the time, Annie and Stevie didn’t really think anything of it. “We just thought it was a fun night and a cool shirt,” he said. About a year later, when Annie started getting more involved in disability studies and advocacy, she got the symbol tattooed on her shoulder. From there, the symbol took off and so many people wanted it as a tattoo as well.
“It took a few years for us to see its potential, but we spent the money to secure the rights from those involved and also had it trademarked and copyrighted in Annie’s name,” Stevie said. According to 3E Love’s website, “it is a symbol of society accepting people with disabilities as equals and a symbol that people with disabilities accept their challenges and even embrace them. By replacing the wheel with a heart, the stigma of the wheelchair is also removed, and it can be a symbol for people with any disability or impairment.” It’s more about the person, not society’s perception of their lack in abilities. At first, the idea was batted around between Annie and Stevie to create 3E Love as a non-profit, but Annie didn’t want to continue to perpetuate the image that people with disabilities solely existed as objects of pity and only deserving of donations. She wanted to break a barrier and prove that people with disabilities could also create sustainable businesses like anyone else. And so, 3E Love was incorporated as a business in 2007. But the symbol was only the beginning to the business and accompanying social message. For the first few years, the symbol and the business remained in Chicago circles. Not much was done in terms of wide advertising exposure. In 2008, a few t-shirts here and there were sold out of state by word of mouth.
Then, Annie passed away from a treatable infection in 1999. With a promise to keep Annie’s dream alive, the fire was lit inside Stevie to widen 3E Love’s reach. After some initial success, Stevie decided to take a risk and sign up for a convention in Atlanta. It was a success. Ha has gone to New York and Los Angeles conferences as well. “I’ve signed up for six more this year,” he said. Stevie plans to travel at least once a month whether it’s for a speaking gig or convention to sell t-shirts. “In my three travel experiences so far, I have met so many awesome people that I now call my friends and I’ve done some awesome things and will continue to do so,” he said. Without 3E Love, Stevie isn’t sure he’d be traveling so much or raising the bar for defying the odds – or rather, redefining them on his terms.
And what would Annie think? “Hopefully she would think it was pretty awesome. She and I had planned on developing more educational services and products, such as speaking engagements, K-12 curriculum and consulting,” Stevie said. Apparel was supposed to just be a marketing avenue as well as a revenue generator for other projects. After the launch of 3E Love’s tees, bags, and “hoodies” in the fall of 2009, its instant success became apparent, so Stevie decided that spreading his and Annie’s message through apparel should be the primary focus until there’s more capital and contacts to expand.
Leslie says, “I have always been a very proud Mom and very fortunate to have Stevie and Annie in my life. When Annie started 3E Love, I was so proud of her vision. She was the artistic one as it shows in the symbol. The symbol meant everything to her. It was lifting that barrier in life.” Because of her education and vision, and Stevie’s education in business, 3E Love has blossomed and continues to grow.
“I think Annie is very proud of her big brother. We know she is here in spirit and pushing us forward. She’s probably even laughing at us a little. Our whole family is very proud of what Stevie and Annie have accomplished,” Leslie said.
And Leslie has continued to support Stevie with 3E Love in Annie’s physical absence by continuing to encourage him. “I’ve helped him at some of the events he’s attended when I can, and believe me when I say “I’ve folded a lot of tee shirts! I’ve done what I can…. We love 3E from the bottom of our hearts.”
To “wear your heart on your sleeve” as another 3E Love saying goes, check out Annie and Stevie’s 3E Love brainchild at http://www.3elove.com.