An expectant mother and father wish and pray for their baby to be born healthy. However, when a doctor informed Andy and Maggie Byrne of Manhattan Beach, following a routine prenatal amniocentesis, that their baby had an extra chromosome—also known as Down syndrome—they were undeterred. Devout parishioners at American Martyrs Catholic Church, they decided to accept and embrace this new member of their family, Thomas.
The diagnosis of Down syndrome can be a life-defining moment and typically happens in 1 of every 700 babies born yearly. The most common chromosomal disorder, Down syndrome is a genetic disorder with characteristic facial features associated with physical growth delays as well as intellectual disabilities.
“Thomas pushes us just as much as we push him, in amazing ways.”
With a smile, Maggie shares that over the years Thomas has brought many wonderful people into their lives, including helpers, aides and honorable people that go above and beyond to accommodate him. Their family goal has been to never limit his abilities and to expose him to as much as they could.
“Thomas slows us down and keeps our feet on the ground. He makes us grateful,” shares Maggie. “Ultimately, having Thomas in their lives has made siblings Kelly (24), Johnny (21) and Luke (13) better people in the long run.”
According to brother Johnny, “Thomas pushes us just as much as we push him, in amazing ways. He has helped us learn values like humility, respect and gratitude at a much faster rate growing alongside him since we were young. He both challenges and blesses us. I don’t think I would be able to emulate these values in my life without a brother like Thomas.”
Thomas was the very first student with intellectual disabilities admitted to American Martyrs School. Later Thomas set his sights on Cathedral Catholic High School (CCHS) in San Diego. After a family meeting, everyone agreed it was important to make it work for Thomas.
CCHS, a private high school, only allows four students per year with intellectual disabilities. When Thomas was one of the lucky ones to be accepted his freshman year, they sat down as a family and discussed the commitment. The entire family agreed it was the best option.
With Thomas’ four-day-a-week school schedule, the family got creative in dividing and conquering with the help of some amazing and accommodating friends in San Diego. Maggie and Andy both have a place to stay on their stay-over nights. Maggie covers Tuesday and Wednesday, and Andy has Thursday and Friday.
Instantly, Thomas felt like a part of the student body. Maggie remembers being at the drop-off when the school president made a point to say “hello” specifically to Thomas.
Thomas says a few of his favorite high school moments include being the team assistant for the school’s highly competitive football team and being on the Prom Court his freshman year. He is currently back in Manhattan Beach for a gap year.
Mary Poppins is the nickname the family has given Lauren, the aide who helps Thomas at home. According to Maggie, she has helped him transition from high school into being an adult. It’s not unusual for teens with intellectual disabilities to experience a huge cliff after high school.
Thomas has always been a strong lover of animals and babies, so he is embarking upon entrepreneurship with Lauren’s help, creating a dog food business. His elaborate, multipage menu is quite large, so Maggie has encouraged him to tailor it down a bit. Currently, Thomas’ business offers homemade dog food, birthday cakes and even specialty snacks.
Each of Maggie and Andy’s children is very successful in their own right. Kelly works at Citigroup in investment banking after graduating cum laude from the University of Notre Dame in 2019. Johnny is in his second year of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and Luke is a seventh grader at American Martyrs and loves lacrosse and surfing.
Thomas’ siblings grasp the reality behind his situation and never let it get in the way. “We put our family first and have learned to put our own individual problems or agendas to the side when it comes to the happiness and well-being of all of us. We are a team,” shares older sister Kelly. “With that in mind, we all contribute to our family in different and unique ways, knowing to support each other when it matters most. So when Thomas has a special opportunity arise, of course we want to do whatever we can to make it special for him. He has taught us to look at the world through a more empathetic lens, and we want him to know that we are always his #1 fans.”