Cindy Bentley has been working on her fall letter to her mother, and boy, does she have a lot to tell her. Every season, Cindy writes a letter to her mom filling her in on the happenings in her life. She then takes the letter to the cemetery where she reads it in front of her mother’s grave.
This fall’s letter will no doubt include the fact that Cindy will be honored by Life Navigators at the 30th Annual Challenger Event on Sept. 23 and was a recent presenter at a Life Navigators Inspiration Hour and likely will mention some of the other keynote addresses she’s given. She may also tell her mom about her athletic achievements in Special Olympics – she’s currently competing in tennis, but also plays soccer, volleyball, basketball, and snowshoeing. No doubt she’ll also mention her job as advocate director for People First Wisconsin, a grassroots nonprofit advocacy organization run by and for people with disabilities.
The accolades coming Cindy’s way would almost certainly make any mother proud, but in Cindy’s case, they are especially amazing.
You see, some 55 years ago, Cindy was born with fetal-alcohol syndrome to a drug-addicted mother with cocaine and heroin in her system. The infant was given 24 hours to live, but she defied the odds. Because of her mother’s drug abuse, Cindy was placed in a foster home. Yet foster care was not the safe haven it should have been. At age 2, she received third degree burns at the hands of a foster mother, leaving her with scars on her arms and legs, even after nine surgeries.
According to Cindy, her mother died when she was 18 years old, and in the last five to six years, with the help of a therapist, Cindy has forgiven her mother and begun writing the seasonal letters to her.
Life Navigator's 30th Annual Challenger Event honoring Cindy Bentley will be held Monday, Sept. 23 at Blue Mound Golf and Country Club, 10122 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa. The event includes golf, dinner and an auction. For ticket information, call (414) 744-6255 or visit www.lifenavigators.org.
“I forgave her for everything and I know she would be very proud of me,” said Cindy, noting in recent letters, she’s told her mom she knows she’s watching over her. “I forgave her for everything, because I know she’s not totally at fault because she couldn’t care for me, but I know she loves me.”
Cindy views challenges as storms in her life and explained in an interview with your Catholic Herald that she rides out those storms with faith and the help of organizations such as Life Navigators that provide assistance to people with disabilities.
“My faith is strong. When I get up in the morning and am in the bathroom, I thank God I am awake,” she said. “I talk to God every day,” she said, adding that she appreciates the blessings in her life.
And she does feel blessed, emphasized Cindy, in spite of the fact she spent most of her childhood in an institution, cared for by people who saw little potential in the youngster with a cognitive disability.
Life changed for Cindy during her mid-20s, in part with the help of Catholic Social Services (now Catholic Charities). The organization helped her move into a supervised apartment where she received help budgeting money, paying bills, doing laundry and even finding a job.
Today, Cindy lives alone with her two cats, Oreo and Blossom, in a one-bedroom apartment in a Milwaukee suburb. With the help of a caregiver, she shops, pays bills and manages every aspect of her life.
In her role as advocacy director for People First Wisconsin, she travels to Madison about three times a month and also gets herself to and from her Milwaukee-area office in St. Francis by bus.
“Cindy has a huge commitment and dedication to people with and without disabilities,” said Jennifer Sanchez, marketing and development coordinator for Life Navigators. “She’s such an inspiration and we really felt with the 30th anniversary of the Challenger event, who better to recognize. She exemplifies a person with disabilities goal of the organization’s, living and working out in the community,” added Sanchez, explaining the selection of Cindy as the 2013 Challenger Honoree.
In the past year, Cindy noted she’s had a few more storms to battle. Last October, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and while she said, “they got it all, it was a wake-up call.” She endured radiation, chemotherapy and months of physical therapy, but slowly she’s returning to her pre-cancer form on the tennis court.
“I call that another storm ride,” said Cindy, “but with faith, I got through that, too. The doctor says my attitude – I have a strong attitude – has got to be what got me through. The oncologist says you have to have a positive attitude. If you’re not positive, you don’t heal fast, and I healed really fast.”
Challenges make her stronger, said Cindy, explaining how she’d push herself to become more when she heard people discount her abilities.
“I remember a psychologist saying that I would not amount to anything, but I got a real job, a real life and I’m doing good with my life,” she said.
Doing good is probably an understatement. Over the years, Cindy has been to the White House twice to meet two presidents, has co-authored her life story, traveled the world and has given numerous speeches, one in front of 15,000 people. Many of her speeches are in front of professionals, helping them to understand how to work with people with disabilities.
Her first invitation to the White House came in December 2000 when President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, hosted a concert, “A Very Special Christmas from Washington D.C.” As a Global Messenger for Special Olympics International, she was invited, too.
She remembers sitting at the dinner with 20-year-old Chelsea Clinton and her mother talking about pets.
The next year, three months after 9-11, Cindy returned to the White House, again as a Global Messenger, this time as the guest of President George W. Bush. She had one of her Special Olympic gold medals blessed at St. Martin de Porres Church, Milwaukee, and brought it along.
She asked Tim Shriver, chairman and CEO of Special Olympics, to give it to the president for her, but instead, Shriver, moved by Cindy’s gesture, arranged that she could give it to the president herself.
According to her biography, Cindy walked up to President Bush and said, “My team won a gold medal last week in volleyball, and we decided to give the medal to you, Mr. President, because you have kept us safe.”
After she put the medal around his neck, he gave her a kiss on the cheek, said Cindy.
Her many experiences serve as inspiration to others, acknowledged Cindy, explaining that in 2010, authors Bob Kann and Caroline Hoffman helped her tell her life story in “Cindy Bentley: Spirit of a Champion,” an 88-page book, published by Wisconsin Historical Press.
As she prepares to receive the honor from Life Navigators, Cindy said, “My message is I’m humbled by this and want other people with intellectual disabilities to be treated the same as I am: with respect. Many deserve the award as much as I and the award is to be shared.” Maryangela Layman Román, Catholic Herald Staff