Ask Amber Baylor to describe her brother, Levi, and words tumble out quickly and excitedly — and lovingly.
On attending Mass: "He loves going to church. He’s the first one up on Sunday morning, asking if we’re going to church. The music, he will sing as loud as he can to the songs and he knows them by heart. A lot of people need the books, and he doesn’t. He sings his heart out."
On sports: "He loves being outside. He plays baseball in the front yard in the middle of winter. There could be four feet of snow on the ground, and he’ll say, ‘Let’s go play baseball outside.’"
On his sense of humor: "He’s a funny kid, always playing practical jokes on people. He pretty much feels that every day is April Fool’s Day."
On his penchant for hugging her: "He doesn’t realize his own strength. He tries to pick me up and I feel like he’s going to break me in half."
On his sociability: "Someone will pass by and he’ll wave and say hi, strike up a conversation with them. He flirts with, like, every girl he sees."
On his popularity around town: "One day he was sick, and on the bus people were saying, ‘I miss him.’ He gives everyone on the bus a high-five. He lights up anybody’s day. If you don’t know Levi, you’re not part of the community, I guess."
By now you should have a good sense of how deeply attached Amber is to her 11-year-old brother, who was born with Down syndrome. Her dedication to Levi and other special-needs kids played a large part in her earning a diocesan Hands of Christ award — an honor given each fall to high-school seniors who have performed outstanding service in their church, school and community.
"Over the years Amber has been a terrific sister to Levi. She has helped her parents (Daniel and Melinda) considerably with the care, teaching and entertainment of her brother," wrote Ruthanne Orth, former youth minister at Newark Valley’s St. John the Evangelist Church, in nominating Amber for Hands of Christ.
Amber, who turned 18 on May 16, will graduate in late June from Newark Valley High School. She’s a soccer and track-and-field athlete and also has belonged to the student council, National Honor Society and select chorus. She ranks 10th in a class of 94 seniors.
Her activities don’t leave a whole lot of free time left over, yet Amber still manages to find many quality moments with her brother. They go running together and she supports him in Special Olympics, for which his specialties are baseball and track. She also volunteers each fall for the local "Buddy Walk," a National Down Syndrome Society-sponsored event that promotes acceptance and inclusion of people with this developmental disability.
Due to their close relationship, Amber said Levi often confides in her first when he’s having a problem. Amber added that she has spent considerable time with other special-needs children in her neighborhood. Without Levi as a brother, she said that she likely "wouldn’t be as understanding about people, caring about their emotions."
Because of this sensitivity, she said that "when people pick on other people, I’m usually the person who stands up and says, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not right.’" This is especially the case when the target is somebody with mental retardation.
"It’s not like they’re stupid. They know you’re picking on them," she said. "It’s not really like they’re that different. They’re really good people."
Levi goes daily to the Preparation for Adult Learning Success — or PALS — program offered through BOCES. There, he "practices stuff like brushing his teeth and combing his hair — basic living stuff," Amber said.
Meanwhile, Amber will be off to Broome Community College this fall to major in dental hygiene. She wants to eventually obtain a pediatric-dentistry degree.
"I just love kids, basically," she stated.
Commuting to a nearby college also will allow Amber to maintain strong ties with her family and friends in Newark Valley.
"I like the town. I went to New York City and everyone was in such a hurry, it drove me insane. I like being in the country. You see somebody you know in the street, and stop and say hi," said Amber, whose family belong to Tioga County’s Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes of which St. John the Evangelist is a part. She and Levi have an older brother, Chris, who’s 20.
Having Amber remain close at hand in the upcoming years will be a big bonus for her kid brother.
"She’s special," Levi said of his sister.
Asked if there was anything else he wanted to tell her to illustrate his feelings, he replied, "I love you."