By David Korte, as told to Karen Mulder
What was it like growing up with a brother with special needs? First and foremost, you should know that my big brother was a huge blessing in my life. I learned so much from him in the 46 years that he was on this earth. Here is his story.
Michael “Mick” Korte was born in 1965, the second of three children. My sister is the eldest and I am four years younger than Mick. Although he didn’t have an official diagnosis, Mick did have a mental disability. The best we can determine is that he lost oxygen during the birthing process and there was some brain damage.
If people were to have met Mick on the street, they might not even have known he had a disability. Amongst his peer group, he was very high-functioning. Physically, he was a very gifted athlete. He absolutely dominated at the Special Olympics in a variety of sports. He especially loved basketball and bowling. He held down a job at the local grocery store and was very socially adept.
Here are some of the important life lessons I learned while growing up with a brother who had special needs.
- Everyone needs to feel loved, accepted, and safe. If I were to think about the “special” needs that Mick had, I would say he needed to feel accepted, loved and safe. Pretty much the same as all of us, right? Except that, not everyone was kind to Mick. I’m not aware that Mick was every physically bullied but bullying can take many forms. Most of the bullying was in the form of unkind words or by way of exclusion. Typically this came from others that needed to put someone down in order to make themselves feel better. I was witness to many bullying incidents when I was a young boy. I saw the emotional hurt caused by the words and actions of others. Having been witness to these incidents really made me realize the impact that our words and actions can have on others.
- It’s possible to be upbeat, no matter your circumstances. Mick was always upbeat and positive. Here was a guy that could have gotten down on life but he never did. He always wanted to help, he always wanted to belong, and he always wanted to be just like everyone else.
- Empathy and patience make us better human beings. When you grow up with someone like my brother you have to be patient. Most things came slow for Mick. He operated on a fourth grade academic level. So even though I was four years younger than Mick, by the time I was in 5th or 6th grade, I was the “big brother” in many respects. Being the “big brother” became most apparent when I began to drive a car. There were not many things in life that Mick wanted more than to drive a car. To him driving a car was part of growing up, being “normal” and being cool. Mick wanted to drive so badly, that he studied hours upon hours and could pass the written exam at the Secretary of State. He just could never operate a car safely. The day came when Mick had to ride in the car with his little brother driving. I will never forget how much he cried that day. This taught me to appreciate the little things in life and to have empathy for those that have the will to achieve but not the ability.
- Finding joy in life nourishes the soul. Mick loved to bike; it provided him freedom. Most of the time Mick biked with no particular purpose, but just for the joy of riding. After Mick died, my good friend Larry Monfils wrote me a letter describing what he learned from Mick. Larry wrote that Mick taught him, “human beings need to embrace activities in their lives which provide them with joy and that joy is not the accomplishment of a deed itself; it is the steady, purposeful pursuit of something you truly enjoy that really nourishes the soul.” I agree completely with Larry’s assessment.
Mick passed away unexpectedly at the age of 46 in 2011. I miss him tremendously, but I’m so grateful for the many wonderful things he taught me, just by being Mick.
David Korte is a founding partner with Korte & Kowatch, a boutique family wealth and consulting practice. He lives with his wife and two children in Grand Rapids, Michigan.