Monday, February 14, 2011

A Happy Valentine's Day for a disabled couple who found love and now speak out on behalf of others with Down syndrome

From The Cincinnati Enquirer:

When Niki Kiser left an abusive relationship more than three years ago, she wanted to meet a man who was good and kind.

And he had to have Down syndrome.

Kiser, who has a mild cognitive disability, shared her wish with Shawna Ryan, her service facilitator with Hamilton County Developmental Disability Services.

It was a tall order, but Ryan charted a course that started with Kiser's blind date with Mark Potee and ended with the two "marrying" in a commitment ceremony last fall.

"I want people to know that being married to him is a blessing," Kiser said at their Oakley home. "It's a sweet story. I don't want people to use the 'R' word about us."

Because statistics aren't kept, it's impossible to know how many couples like Kiser, 32, and Potee, 46, exist. Anecdotally, experts say it's rare that a person who does not have Down syndrome partners with someone who does.

Today, their relationship is part of the National Down Syndrome Society's My Great Story campaign that spreads awareness about the 400,000 Americans who have Down syndrome.

Kiser visited the society's website - - and responded to an invitation for people to contribute their stories to an online storybook about people with Down syndrome.

"The overarching message is to let the general public know that people with Down syndrome are capable of so many things, given the opportunity," said Sarah Schleider, vice president of marketing and communications for the society.

"They're capable of going to school and working. They're capable of living independently. The campaign has the power to ignite a new way of thinking about people with Down syndrome."

When Ryan visited Kiser's home in Oakley after the breakup, she lent a sympathetic ear.

"I said I needed a boyfriend who loves me and cares about me," Kiser said.

"I was telling her, 'You've got to get out there. You can't meet them in your living room,' " Ryan said.

Kiser was going to dances and other social outings, but wasn't meeting anyone.

"She was looking for what everybody is looking for, somebody who is going to treat her nice, do things she likes to do," Ryan said. "'Oh, and one other thing, he has to have Down syndrome.' I said, 'Why?'''

She ran to her room and brought out a picture of Chris Burke, who starred in "Life Goes On," the first television series to feature a major character with Down syndrome. It aired on ABC from 1989 to 1993.

"I really like him, and I want to be with somebody like him," she told Ryan.

Ryan knew one or two such men in her caseload that were fairly close to Kiser's age.

Turns out, love was just around the corner.

Ryan thought of Potee, who lived in Oakley, not far from Kiser. But, he had never mentioned wanting to date. Ryan asked him if he was interested in going out with Kiser. She offered to along to help break the ice.

"He wasn't that excited," Ryan said. "He was like, 'I guess.' "

She asked Potee where he wanted to take Kiser.

The Silverton Café.

"We set a date (Aug. 13, 2008) and the one thing that struck me, initially, was when they first met, she was very considerate of him, because he has a hearing impairment, and he was wearing headphones," Ryan said. "She started signing to him a little bit."

They seemed to click as they sat together in the back of Ryan's sedan. They exchanged cell phone numbers. They shared pictures of family members. Ryan turned the radio to WARM-FM 98 to set the mood on the way home.

"All I did was plant a little seed," Ryan said, "and they just took it from there."

Sitting on the sofa with Kiser, Potee recalled their first date.

"She gave me my first kiss on the lips," he said. "It was good."

When he proposed, he got down on one knee.

The two were joined together in the commitment ceremony Sept. 11 at the United Church of Christ in Oakley. Though they didn't legally marry, they pledged to spend the rest of their lives together. Had they married, their Social Security benefits would have been reduced.

At the ceremony, she wore a white gown and veil. He wore a black tuxedo. Their best friends were maid of honor and best man. Kiser's father walked her down the aisle.

Potee cried.

"When Niki came down the aisle, she looked so gorgeous. My, oh my," he said. "She's the love of my life."

Some 150 family and friends gathered to witness this new chapter in their lives.

For their first dance at their reception, they danced to Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's "It's Your Love."

They honeymooned at CoCo Key Water Resort in Sharonville.

He was attracted to her, he said, because she was nice and kind.

"She's got her mom's looks. She is a special wife," he said, smiling at her. "She makes me happy."

As for him?

"He's a gentleman,'' Kiser said. "He's caring and polite. He cooks for me."

Both have jobs. Kiser works in the cafeteria at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, while Potee has a job cleaning at Revolution Fitness in Oakley.

The two like to frequent McDonald's and Target. They go bowling and watch TV. He likes to watch wrestling.

"I like "Life Goes On,' " she said.

He slapped his forehead.

Is he jealous?

"No," he said. "Not really."

Kiser's next dream is to see Burke and his folk band perform later this year in Indianapolis.

Ryan is working on making that dream come true, too.

"They're great people that are able to live their lives like we all want to live," Ryan said. "Everybody should have the opportunity to have companionship if that's what you want."