Jacob Miller hugs his big sister Carolyn Miller, who is a communication manager for Sunshine Inc. of Northwest Ohio. Living with someone who has a disability has helped her in her profession, but Jacob's 'complete sense of joy' has permeated the lives of everyone in his family.
Jacob Miller, 10, was the kid brother who hid his older siblings' keys and shoes because he didn't want them to leave.
He wasn't afraid to go up to strangers -- a group of motorcycle riders, celebrating a birthday party at the park -- and join in on the fun.
Jacob, who has Down syndrome, taught his family lessons about love, compassion, and the magic of living life without reservations, said his older sister Carolyn Miller.
"Until people experience it firsthand, you don't understand it," said Ms. Miller, 24, who grew up with Jacob on a farm outside Bowling Green. "It's this complete sense of joy. … It's the most beautiful thing you can imagine."
But living with somebody who has a disability helped Ms. Miller in her professional life too.
She is a communication manager for Sunshine Inc. of Northwest Ohio, a nonprofit organization that provides housing and work opportunities for people who have conditions such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and autism.
Founded in 1950, the organization runs 15 houses throughout Lucas and Fulton counties where disabled people live together with around-the-clock Sunshine staff. Sunshine, which has strong ties to the Mennonite church, also houses 76 people at its headquarters, 7223 Maumee Western Rd., outside Maumee in Monclova Township.
"It's not surprising where she landed," said her mother, Ruth Miller.
The Millers say Jacob's arrival is how the family came together.
Mrs. Miller said doctors warned her that her son -- the youngest of eight children -- might be born severely disabled or never walk. The family vowed to make the best of whatever happened.
Ms. Miller remembered her father, Jerry, sitting her siblings down to talk about Jacob and reading them a story about a traveler who dreamed of going to Italy on vacation. But somehow, the traveler ended up on the wrong flight and found herself in Holland, where, unexpectedly, she had a great time.
"So guys, it looks like we're going to Holland," Mr. Miller told his children.
For the first two years of Jacob's life, the baby suffered countless medical problems.
His heart had a hole in it, and the valves needed repair. But the surgery had complications, and the infant required a breathing tube. Jacob later developed a serious staph infection and lung problems.
At times, his parents worried that he wouldn't survive.
"The left lung was collapsed and the right was collapsing when we arrived to the hospital. He literally went from playing on our study floor to severely compromised over the course of a half hour," his mother said.
While Mr. and Mrs. Miller were at the hospital with Jacob, their oldest daughter, Laura, became the surrogate parent. She made sure her siblings went to their sports practices and 4-H.
"Laura was the hero of the family," Ms. Miller said. "She basically ran the show."
Neighbors, family members, even complete strangers brought the Miller children dinners. "We had food coming out the ears because we had so many friends and family who were willing to help out," Ms. Miller said.
Now, Jacob, a third grader at Haskins Elementary in Otsego Local Schools, is healthy except for sinus problems.
He loves eating hamburgers and fries, going on movie dates with his older sister, and anything with Thomas the Tank Engine.
"He's a tough little guy," his mother said.
And for Ms. Miller, Jacob has brought a sense of comfort. After Laura went to college at the University of Notre Dame, Ms. Miller felt heartbroken to lose her big sister -- the person she always confided in, and shared clothes and a bedroom with.
Ms. Miller, then a teen, camped out in her little brother's room. Her insomnia disappeared, yet she could wake up when Jacob, who had apnea, stopped breathing.
"I can't even explain the fierce loyalty and love from his older sisters," their mother said. "It's a very protective kind of love."
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