Photography by Kevin A. Roberts
A simple, unassuming bench sits at a bus stop on Lockwood Avenue in Glendale. Even if the bench’s form doesn’t at first capture your attention, you might notice its brightly painted legs and the sign above it, sometimes adorned with balloons or tinsel-wrapped candy canes, and wonder about its origins.
“The whole community was talking about what was going on on Lockwood,” says Colleen Mehan. “The bus stop was veiled in a lot of mystery when it first started.” This spot, it turns out, is her daughter Grace’s Glendale bus stop. The stop is on the No. 56 Kirkwood-Webster MetroBus route, which 21-year-old Grace has relied on for the past 2 ½ years to get to her work program and two hostess jobs.
After she graduated from Kirkwood High School in 2011, Grace, who has Down syndrome, began taking part in a work program at Webster University.
“For Grace to take the bus to her work program would mean the world to her,” says Tom Mehan, Grace’s fa- ther. “But realizing that there is only three feet of space between Lockwood and Westborough Country Club, I wanted to give her some kind of definition of space.”
So in August 2011, Tom went ahead and built a bench for his daughter’s bus stop. “It was also an opportunity for people to honk and wave as they’re driving by,” he says. “It catches their eye; they look and realize someone is standing there.”
The bus stop’s decor soon evolved from a simple way to ensure Grace’s safety to a way to celebrate. “On October 1, which is Grace’s birthday, Colleen and I went down to the stop and hung balloons and a sign, ‘Happy Birthday, Grace,’” Tom recalls. “Then on Halloween, I hung a wire from the pole to the bus-stop sign and hung up pumpkins, and that’s when I just went nuts.”
In the years since, a mariachi band, Santa Claus and an elf, the Easter Bunny, and Elvis have all appeared at Grace’s bus stop. Once, Tom even dressed up like a gigantic cake in celebration of his daughter’s birthday.
The decorations and the attention that the bus stop attracts have had a positive effect on Grace.
“It makes me feel happy,” Grace says, beaming. Adds Colleen, “People stop and talk to Grace. There have been several people who have just shown up.” Glendale residents look forward to the new decorations, which Grace’s younger sister, Maggie, frequently helps put up before she heads to high school early in the morning. “Every time Maggie and I are down there changing the decorations, people will stop and thank us for doing it,” Colleen says. Grace’s older brother, Brendan, who now lives in New York, sends wishes from afar. “He really just spreads the love.”
The interest in Grace’s bus stop became so great that Colleen launched a Facebook page (facebook.com/pages/graces-glendale-bus-stop/116072348526169). “I was sending out these 100-pound emails to friends who wanted to see the pictures, and I was spending a lot of time doing it,” she says. “During a family vacation, Brendan and Maggie said to get a Facebook page for it. I registered it as a landmark so that people could visit it whether they were on Facebook or not.”
And visit they did. “The thing that cracks me up is that people who look for St. Louis landmarks will see the Saint Louis Art Museum, they’ll see the Missouri History Museum, and they’ll see Grace’s Glendale bus stop,” Colleen says. The site has drawn visitors from all over the world, including Nova Scotia, Canada.
Since the Mehans got started more than two years ago, Grace’s bus stop has become a source of inspiration not only to those in her immediate surroundings, but also to the much broader community of people with disabilities.
“It’s starting to circle through certain organizations, like autism awareness,” Tom says. “What we like about it is that this reaches a whole world of people.”
“It’s not just about Grace,” Colleen adds. “It’s about the community she represents.”
Still, it’s Grace who captures everyone’s heart. Like any other 21-year-old, she juggles school, jobs, and a jam-packed social life—and continually surprises her parents. On a recent outing with a friend, she bought a pair of leopard-print pants. “I’m wearing these to church tonight,” she says with a mischievous grin. She also has “Big Pink,” a bubble gum–pink bicycle she rides to the bus stop in the morning, weather permitting.
The bus stop gives passersby a chance to learn about the life and abilities of one person with Down syndrome. As Colleen notes, people who know Grace love that the bus stop is about her, but people who don’t know her get a chance to be part of the family’s positive effort and experience “how high-functioning and what a contributor Grace is.” Recently, the Mehans were contacted by a family who learned they are expecting a baby with Down syndrome.
“A friend sent them our way to say, ‘Fear not,’” Tom says. “There’s movement; there’s growing up; there’s maturing. In that regard, it’s kind of a flagship to all the people out there who need this.” For the many families who have young children with Down syndrome, Grace’s story has inspired dreams of a positive future.
“If we had seen something like this 21 years ago, we would have been filled with hope,” Colleen says.
Grace squeezes her way in between her parents on the living-room couch, wrapping an arm around each of their shoulders as she recounts crying on her 21st birthday. “I cried because it was my birthday, and I’m growing up,” she says. “My parents will miss me when I go away.”
“She says she wants to go to Italy for a while,” Tom says. “I told her that’s a little farther than I’m ready for.”
Grace’s view of her momentum in the world is a testament to her growth and independence and aided by a strong sense of community, family, and contribution. The true meaning of Grace’s bus stop is captured by the Mehans’ celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The family hung a sign at the bus stop that read, “I Too Have a Dream,” and posted a photo on Facebook with a message from Grace and Colleen.
“We all have dreams. This is a good day to raise our dreams up,” they wrote. “I have a dream that people of all abilities will be appreciated for their abilities…for what they CAN do and not remembered for what they can’t do.”