When 8-year-old Lilah Carter opens the front door to My Way Tavern, a neighborhood favorite in Holly Springs, North Carolina, she might as well own the place. In the nearly 15 years her family has frequented the establishment, her face has become one that regulars look forward to seeing, week after week. Now, even on days without an appearance from Lilah herself, an extension of her creativity, her warmth, her presence is with them.
“Everyone is happy to see Lilah,” said Nikki Stafford, owner of My Way Tavern. “She makes everyone smile. We all know what a tough year she has had, so we’re always happy to see her smiling face.”
The ceiling of My Way Tavern is a collage of T-shirts, a permanent display of community causes, sports teams and, as of January 2023, a Special Olympics North Carolina (SONC) Partner Up Power Up T-shirt, designed by Lilah. SONC’s Partner Up Power Up program is an eight-week Unified Sports® training and fitness plan that can be completed from home, without access to internet.
Many Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools® in the state are registered for the program, with designated virtual sessions scheduled during the school day for students with and without intellectual disabilities. When SONC announced a design contest for the latest Partner Up Power Up T-shirt, students from Lilah’s elementary school submitted their artwork. For Lilah and her family, the selection of her artwork was a bright spot in a dark season.
On January 27, 2022, Lilah’s mom passed away suddenly, leaving them in the care of their grandparents, Shannon and Chad Sloan. Five and a half months later, Shannon passed, and Chad became the primary caregiver for Lilah and her 5-year-old brother, Michael. Surrounded by her extended family, Lilah tells them regularly that she loves them “to the moon and the back.”
“She’s a typical 8-year-old girl, she’s learning life with having autism,” said Michelle Stroup, Lilah’s great aunt. “After everything that she has gone through, Lilah looks at life with such a positive outlook… Seeing her drawing after everything and the message that it represents, that as a community, we can partner up and make everything better. To me that, that’s what that shirt symbolizes and stands for.”
“It is a huge step in the right direction,” said Shelbie Sloan, Lilah’s aunt. “It’s a big milestone for us, especially for her.”
The bright-blue T-shirt is Lilah’s creation come to life. In her words, “That’s me and Michael, we’re doing sports.” Lilah is seldom found without a pencil, a crayon, a marker in hand. What she is not always able to express through words, she expresses through art.
“Lilah is amazing,” said Chad. “She is the most creative person I have ever met in my entire life. She’s very friendly, she doesn’t know a stranger at all…I’m filled with pride and joy, something that my granddaughter did is up there for everyone to see. The response we get from this place is so amazing.”
One day, Lilah hopes to become a ballerina or a “firetruck.” Michelle elaborated, “She wants to work on a firetruck.” For now, in her involvement with Special Olympics, in her routine interactions at My Way Tavern and with her family, she is living in the present, fiercely loving others “to the moon and the back.”