I have to give a shout-out to my friend, Cait, for first posting a link to my Facebook wall about Nadjah Bray, the Chopped Junior® star who cooked her way to the top of the competition, and introducing me to this Food Network star. I clicked the link back in late August, wondering, Why a post about a cooking show? Cait (and everyone else) knows I’m not a master of the kitchen . . .
But Nadjah’s cooking skills weren’t what made me tear up (although she’s certainly quite the talent!), but rather the reason why Cait posted the link in the first place. Nadjah’s inspiration for being on the show resonated with me deep down to my very bones: She was helping her family raise her twin autistic siblings. “And I just want to help other kids out there if they’re going through what I went through.”
Oh my God . . . I stared at the computer screen, I HAVE to talk to her . . .
Like a good little internet stalker, I contacted everyone I could, from Food Network to its parent corporation, explaining that I was the Vice President and Co-Founder of the California chapter of the Sibling Leadership Network. No one was legally able to provide me with Nadjah’s contact information. Then, like a dummy, I did a Facebook search, which I should have done 50,000 searches prior. Her page came up instantly.
I messaged Nadjah’s Facebook page and immediately got a response. I was so excited to have seen the clips of Nadjah’s win on Chopped Junior® and to hear her inspiration. She wanted to pay it forward, help Siblings just like I was trying to help them, get the word out about Sib support and understanding. Could she please please please talk to me???
I felt like a kid begging Santa for a puppy!
“I’m very excited to talk to you!” came her response!
So without further adieu, I am pleased and honored to feature Nadjah Bray, Chopped Junior® Champion and Sister extraordinaire, answering questions about her experience and sharing details about what being a Special Sib is all about.
Jackie: Nadjah! I’m so thankful and honored you agreed to talk to me! I can’t tell you how excited I was to hear that A FOOD NETWORK STAR was pursuing her dreams of Sibling support! I’d love it if you could tell me a little about yourself and how you came to enjoy cooking?
Nadjah: Jackie thank for giving me the opportunity to share my story with you. I’m truly honored that a fellow AuSome sibling has reached out to me.
I began my journey in the kitchen when my sister Ny’Leah was born. She was born in distress and lacking oxygen. She’s diagnosed with H.I.E (hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy), epilepsy, cortical vision impairment and cerebral palsy. She spent 4.3 weeks in NICU, and my parents were gone from home everyday to visit and care for her.
I started brewing coffee and making breakfast for my mother and siblings every morning. Then I continued my passion while learning new cooking skills daily. Once my sister was discharged from NICU, mom needed assistance and would give me cooking instructions, and everyday I added my own twist and my whole family enjoyed my learning process.
J: Yep, sounds like a Special Sibling. Your family is so lucky to have you there when they needed you. What are some of your favorite dishes to cook?
Nadjah: I enjoy cooking healthy, savory, crockpot meals. I love Italian, Mediterranean, and Southern cooking.
I really enjoy seafood, and the very creative ways of cooking vegetables.
J: Yum! Is there a secret to being a great cook?
Nadjah: I believe in cooking with love. If you do not do it with love, it will not taste right. You have to enjoy cooking and be willing to try new techniques.
J: Very cool! There’s a similar sentiment in my family. What were some of the greatest and some of the worst moments when you were competing on Chopped Junior®?
Nadjah: My greatest moment was the entree round. They didn’t show it, but helping Christian was very humbling. He was very distraught and needed our help.
My worst moment was when my ankles began to ache and my head was hurting. I had to use my inner strength and the voice of my mother to get through.
J: I’ve seen clips of your episode, and you always seemed so composed and confident! How do you think that confidence has helped get you where you are today?
Nadjah: My parents always tell me to believe in myself . . . To keep going and try harder. Without that I would’ve never tried.
J: I can’t tell you how excited I was to hear your inspiration lay with your special needs siblings. I have an autistic sister–just one–so I can’t imagine what you’re family has to go through with multiple siblings. What’s something you want to tell other kids your age about what it’s like having an special needs family member?
Nadjah: It can be extremely hard. I have to be patient and show them that no matter what, their big sister loves them. My brothers really do love us, and sometimes it’s difficult to know that when they are having melt downs and sensory overload.
I’ll say to other children with autistic siblings, to be patient. It’s OK to feel overwhelmed. Take breaks and walk away, when you feel that you can not get through. Look for local groups, Sibshops and trainings, that are specifically for us. Know that you are amazing and our AuSome siblings are fortunate to have us, just as much as we are for having them in our lives.
J: Very sweet. Thank you! Can you tell me a little about each of your siblings? What makes them unique in their own ways?
Nadjah: I think my siblings are AuMazing lol
Ny’Leah is 10 months old, and so special because she’s a fighter. She’s a survivor. Her personality makes her unique, but her story makes her a warrior. She’s a happy, smiley, and loving baby, that has already beaten the odds and her diagnosis. She had a delayed swallow and gags often with vomiting. She’s getting a g-tube to help her with nourishment, until she can take more by mouth after feeding therapy. She will have eye surgery next month, to correct her eye muscles, from her brain trauma. See why I think she’s amazing and such a warrior?!
My twin brothers are 3.
Aubrey: Aubrey is the youngest twin. He is considered non-verbal, but he’s absolutely brilliant. He does everything in his own time, and is a wiz with electronics. He is super silly and has the best non-verbal cues.
Aarion: Lol, he’s silly, and loves to learn. He loves to compare and contrast. He loves puzzles, trucks and jumping on his trampoline. He is more verbal than Aubrey.
Both are smarter than they share with us, until they are ready.
Akerah: Akerah is 9, and an amazing dancer and talented singer. She’s my sous chef. She’s absolutely hilarious and very supportive. She’s my best friend.
J: I love your creative terms: AuSome and AuMazing siblings! I need to start using those! And you share a lot of insightful things with us — our siblings will share what they want when they’re ready. Sometimes I don’t think the world gives them enough credit. Good thing they have you on their sides! So, can you tell me, what does your relationship with your siblings look like?
Nadjah: Interesting. We are all very loving and caring. They get on my nerves of course because they are younger than me. I’m often times helping with all 4, so I am like a caregiver to the youngest 3. My sister Akerah and I are super close. She’s my BFF. We have disagreements, but we are very close.
J: Do you ever have moments of doubt or insecurity about your siblings’ lives? If so, how do you deal with those moments, get past them?
Nadjah: Yes, I get concerned of the twins’ temper tantrums, and if they will continue these as they get older. If they continue with sensory issues, how will they balance this later and calm themselves.
I worry about Leah’s muscular diagnosis and epilepsy.
If I’m overwhelmed I lean on my parents and explain my concern. My faith keeps me balanced and knowing that they will be just fine. It’s heavy sometimes, so mommy says it’s OK to feel over it all, but never give up.
J: I know what you mean. Your mom is right — she’s a wise woman. You mentioned starting a website for Sibs of people with special needs — what would you like to offer other Siblings? What would you tell them?
Nadjah: This is my dream to offer local support, constructive advice, and to build a network community that educates, forms friendship, refers local professional care, sponsor events and fundraisers for families in need. The financial struggle is horrible on my parents, and I see this. Other children need ways of venting safely and offering an escape and space to do that without judgment.
J: How are your friends’ relationships with your siblings? Do your siblings factor in to the people you consider close friends?
Nadjah: I do not have local friends, because I am homeschooled, but I have a large family. My brothers are not so much bothered by most people, but they can be overwhelmed by environments, mysterious faces or aggressive people, that try to touch them without asking.
J: How do you make sure that you still get to be a kid among all of these wonderful, mature, incredible accomplishments you’ve achieved?
Nadjah: My parents know my fears and wanting to be an ordinary kid. I’m not on social media a lot. My life hasn’t changed much at all, except the event news and interviews. I’m still the same Nadjah. I love playing at the park, playing dress up, swimming with family, games with my sister, singing, dancing, jumping on my trampoline, riding my bike . . . Just being a kid and being a free spirit, as my mom says.
I enjoy family movie night, shopping, amusements parks and anything sugary that mommy says I shouldn’t eat to much of, AND . . . chocolate. Omg, I love chocolate.
J: Mmm chocolate!! Hahaha me too! I’m glad you still make time for you. Do you know what career you’d like to pursue? Please tell me you’re considering college at USC! (ha! Just kidding . . . kind of)! 🙂
Nadjah: Yes, I want to go to law school and become a lawyer, entrepreneur, fashion designer and own several 5 star restaurants.
Lol, I’d love to go to Harvard, however it would be awesome to visit you one day at USC😊LOL
J: Oh goodness, please tell me when you open a restaurant! I’ll be there all the time! That’s amazing. You’ll definitely achieve all that and more, I’m sure of it 🙂 So, are there any worries you have about your own future as a Special Sibling?
Nadjah: No worries for me. I am extra sensitive of my siblings needs, so I pray that they are all self-sufficient and can pursue their dreams as well. Either way, I will be there for them.
J: That’s wonderful. So, when you’re struggling or at an incredibly low moment, or full of doubt — because we know having siblings with special needs isn’t easy — what gives you strength?
Nadjah: Wow, this is so true. My parents, my sister, Papa, Nana, and God mother are all so supportive. I have any of them to be free to cry to, vent or express any frustration.
J: You are an absolutely incredible young lady. Are there any questions you have for me?
Nadjah: How did you get started with your organization?
J: I heard about Sibling Support when I attended a conference about Regional Centers here in California. I contacted Julie Neward up in the Bay Area who was trying to start a California chapter of the national Sibling Leadership Network. She and I met when she was down in Pasadena for a baby shower, and the rest is history! We have two other incredible Board members — Kalyn Ferris and Eunice Im — whom we met along the way. Doing lots of research and staying up late talking on the phone via conference calls is a lot of how we got started. We’re still figuring out exactly what we want to do, but every new event or interview enriches the message that Special Sibs deserve support.
Nadjah: Did you have moments of doubt that you could truly help others?
J: Absolutely. All the time. I still do — when very few (or no) people show up to an event, or people don’t return phone calls or emails, I wonder, “Does this even matter? Am I kidding myself?” I have incredible friends and family that remind me to keep persevering, and the few people I may have helped are still extremely important.
Nadjah: Did you ever feel like life isn’t fair?
J: I’m laughing, because when we were little and my brother and I complained about Life not being fair, my dad would ask us if we wanted ‘fair?’ That meant that EVERYTHING in the house would be “fair,” if one of us was invited to a party but the others weren’t, we couldn’t go, because “it wasn’t fair!” Of course, we’d say, “No . . . we don’t want ‘fair.” It was an extremely powerful lesson that, no, Life isn’t fair.
And I’m not just talking about my sister — I have family members who have passed away at extremely young ages (like, in their teens) from car crashes or cancer; I have experience with too many friends and family who have been sexually assaulted with no punishment brought to the perpetrators; turning on the news details some new instance of injustice in our world. And of course, my sister never got the chance to talk (she’s non-vocal too). In those moments, my faith and my family and friends help me, too.
Nadjah: How did you deal with that?
J: After my cousin died of cancer, I stopped going to Mass, as if that had somehow affected her diagnosis. When I finally went back for the first time after a year, I sat in the back row, and cried for most of the service. I’ll never forget that day and the powerful feeling of knowing I always had God; He’d never left, He’d never forsaken me. Whatever people’s religious feelings are, I believe we all have something bigger than ourselves to which we hold when we are overwhelmed; for me, my faith was that ‘something.’
Nadjah: How did you explain autism to your friends and family?
J: Most of my friends and family are adults now, so they understand that autism affects the brain in a way that interprets sensory stimulation differently. To anyone younger, I explain that they have the same senses we do, but they may be heightened or lessened; they may hear something a mile away, or they may feel a push as only a tap. Explaining the differences in sensation usually does the trick.
Nadjah: Has life changed from when your sister was younger until now?
J: Yes, definitely! She has fewer ‘temper tantrums’ the way she did when she was a kid, but she can still be violent by pinching, hitting, or pushing someone. A couple years ago, she was diagnosed with bipolar and clinical depression, so there was a really difficult time when she was exhibiting much more severe, violent behavior than she ever had. Thanks to some amazing doctors, the diagnosis is under control, but it took a long time and was extremely taxing on all our families.
I wrote a book on growing up with a sister with autism, and ever since then, I’ve had random people I didn’t know email me telling me that they appreciate my story and that they’ve shared it with a special Sibling they know. Along with friends and family who supported me the whole way through, of course. I think, once I started seeing my sister’s condition as part of my Life’s inspiration, I was able to change my mindset about living a meaningful Life amidst so much adversity.
Nadjah: Thank you so so much. I feel that you can be my sibling mentor in a sense. I have started a Facebook page, hoping to connect there with other AuSome siblings, until my page is up and running.
If you have anymore questions for me I will gladly answer. Thank you so so much Jackie.
Jackie: And thank you, Nadjah! I’d absolutely love to keep in touch, and you bet! I look forward to it! 🙂