Love. Kindness. Inclusion.
These are the principles eighth-grader Addison Bortnick hopes to instill in the student body of Cathey Middle School in McAllen as their newly elected school council vice president.
Showing love and kindness comes as second nature for the 13-year-old. She is loved by her friends and cheerleading squad at school and is known in her family as a sweet and caring girl.
Inclusion, her mom Rebecca Bortnick said, is “a fight Addison has been in her whole life.”
Addison has Down syndrome and is the first student with disabilities to be elected into the council.
When the Bortnick family moved to McAllen from Colorado, Addison was a fifth grader and though she wanted to learn in normal classrooms, it was a struggle being allowed to. Her only option at the time as a student with Down syndrome was to be separated into a special education group.
Now, Addison is a representative of her classmates, and just thinking about this brings Addison to “happy tears.”
“I am on a mission to replace fear with love, replace doubt with knowledge, and replace segregation with inclusion,” she said.
Rebecca recorded Addison’s reaction to finding out her classmates elected her to be vice president, a video which has received more than 27,000 views so far on Facebook.
It shows how after reading the email, Addison’s face immediately lights up, her eyes and smile beaming with glee.
She raises her hands in the air in victory, then on her cheeks from shock saying “this is so special to me… the vice president is me.”
Kamala Harris’ achievement of becoming the first vice president-elect of the United States who is a woman, as well as a person of color, serves as fitting inspiration for Addison.
Addison’s motivation to run for vice president of her school council stems from her love for people.
“She is very connected to people and she loves learning about people,” Rebecca said of her daughter. “She loves people that have changed the world, and I think they have inspired her to have a voice and to know that her voice is valuable and she is just as capable.”
One of Addsion’s favorite things to do is read, and her favorite books are biographies about people of power. Her bookshelf is full of stories about past leaders, such as Rosa Parks and Helen Keller.
She said Martin Luther King Jr. has also been a major inspiration for her.
“So she says, ‘My big, big, big dream is that all the kids with disabilities and kids without disabilities can be together because we are all just God’s children,’” Rebecca said for her daughter.
This is Addison’s first time being elected into a leadership position, but she is very aware of what it is like to be an advocate for others. A year ago, Addison helped state senators Bobby Guerra, D-McAllen, and Beverly Bowell of North Texas pass SB 1017, which established an advisory council within the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board that focuses on improving education opportunities for people with disabilities.
She has also spoken alongside U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, to speak up for children with disabilities, and was honored at the Texas Capitol at 12-years-old for her advocacy.
Additionally, in 2018, she was the Easterseals Rio Grande Valley Advocate of the Year, and this year, was selected as the RGV Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Rising Star.
Last week, Addison was selected as a national Down syndrome ambassador and will be going soon to Washington to accept the role, though the COVID-19 pandemic has caused uncertainty over when it will be safe for the event.
Addison’s main message is that children with disabilities should be allowed to be a part of regular classrooms, her mom said.
“When children are included in all circles of learning at their own comfort level, and are given the love and support and education they deserve, they thrive,” Rebecca said. “Their environment is everything. It’s the key to their success, and right now, unfortunately, the general education classroom is not accessible to many children with disabilities, and that is not OK.”
Schools should let students with disabilities learn in regular classes first, she said, and let them decide whether they prefer a special education group.
“Inclusion needs to be our first option in the classroom, rather than our last option,” Rebecca said, adding that she often gets asked about how Addison reads and speaks so well.
The answer, she said, is simple: “It’s inclusion.”
Addison has her heart set on being a public speaker when she grows up, and has already taken major steps to making that dream a reality.
Rebecca adopted Addison when she was 3 years old, and noticed that starting from such a young age, her daughter loved speaking — more importantly, she had a heart for speaking for those who couldn’t.
When Addison was younger, her favorite toy was a microphone, which she seemed to never let go, her mom remembers. She would take it wherever she was in the house, using it to sing and dance.
That spirit has stayed with Addison. She loves singing along to Taylor Swift, and has plans to make sure that all her classmates feel included and cared for.
“Addison wants to be a voice for all others whose voices are not being taught, that they know they are valuable and they are worth an education,” Rebecca said.
Addison has spoken to numerous crowds. She has had conversations with several representatives, but one trait she has that makes her stand out is being brave enough to say when she does not understand something.
When she is unable to answer a question, she does not hesitate to say “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to explain it.”
“We are human, and one of the things we really want to portray is that perfection is not a human quality,” Rebecca said. “None of us are perfect, and that’s why diversity in our schools is so needed because segregating kids with disabilities away from other kids is telling them that they have imperfections.”