Camp Verde, AZ (May 17, 2019)
The Gagnon family never thought they would be writing a children’s book. But then again, they never thought they would foster over 30 children, adopting five with special needs in addition to their two biological kids. The family found themselves in the national spotlight after a Facebook post by Stacey Gagnon went viral about her son, Joel, who was born with Goldenhar Syndrome which caused an incomplete development of his ear, soft palate, and facial bone structures. It only affects one side of his face and requires a plethora of doctor appointments and reconstructive surgeries. Stacey’s post detailed an encounter at a new church they visited where other kids just stared and pointed at Joel, causing him to run and hide. That incident sparked social media responses from around the world, and the Gagnons were featured on NBC and Fox, among other media outlets. But it was one response in particular which initially angered Gagnon that ultimately birthed the idea of the new children’s book entitled Cowboy Joel and the Wild Wild West.
“The reader told me that my son would be stared at and pointed at and he needed to get used to it,” recalls Gagnon. “At first, this comment made me angry, but then I started to see the kernel of truth in this statement. As hard as it is for me as his mother, this was going to be his reality. And as I thought deeper, I realized that on some level, we all have ‘differences’ or things about ourselves that we do not like. When we are seeking acceptance and worth from others, it would always fall short. I understand that Joel must find his worth in who he is and how he was created. There will always be bullies, there will always be stares, there will always be those who seek to make him feel less than worthy; but Joel is exactly who he is supposed to be.”
Joel is not the only real-life character that is depicted in the new book. The family’s pet dragon, Blackbeard, is also a central figure in Cowboy Joel and the Wild Wild West. And Blackbeard has his own back story.
“Blackbeard was adopted from the Phoenix Herpetological Society, which is like an orphanage for reptiles,” says Gagnon. “While on a field trip, the reptile keeper asked my husband if he knew of a family that would adopt a special needs bearded dragon. This bearded dragon had a limb difference and he was being bullied and injured by the other bearded dragons. He needed a family that could keep him safe and would accept him for his differences. My husband knew right away that our family would be perfect for this lizard.”
A former teacher and now nurse, Gagnon says Cowboy Joel and the Wild Wild West was written to help elementary students deal with bullying.
“My husband and I are both educators and we believe most children can relate to being bullied or picked on by someone. Our hope is that children learn that the biggest ‘El Maton’ (bully, thug) in their lives is the voice that whispers incorrectly in their head ‘you are not special, you are not worthy, you are not valuable.’”
Gagnon says their journey of being foster and adoptive parents has taught them that every child has a “special need.”
“Kids who come into our home all come with hurts and pains that require special care,” says Gagnon. “These emotional wounds can be far more disabling that any physical special need with which they may be labeled. At the end of the day, we have adopted children who come with a variety of backgrounds that meld beautifully in our family. Where one child might struggle, we find a brother or sister stepping in to lend a hand, or a leg, or an ear. The differences are not so apparent when you have family. We all seem to help fill the voids in each other.”