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The relationship between brothers as they grow up can often be a delicate balance between being close friends and coming close to being bitter rivals.
For the older brother, there’s often the challenge of paving the way and setting the standard.
For the younger brother, there’s often the challenge of following in footsteps and striving to measure up to the standard that has already been set.
Then there’s the story of Robbie and Tommy Steiner, two high school students who offer a touching twist to the story of how brothers sometimes interact.
As the older brother, 19-year-old Robbie has set the gold standard in his recently completed four years as a student at Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School in Clarksville.
He was co-valedictorian of the Class of 2007, sharing the recognition as top academic student with fellow senior Kristin Mooney. He was also the president of the Student Council, a member of Students Against Drunk Driving, an actor in the theater program, and a swimmer and diver on the school swim team.
Yet when school officials talk about Robbie, they also make sure to note his relationship with his younger brother, Tommy, a 16-year-old freshman at Providence. Tommy has Down syndrome.
“There’s just a brotherly bond there, and a love there that is just incredible,” says Karen Schueler, the learning support coordinator for Providence. “To Robbie, his brother is number one. He’s very attuned to Tommy’s needs. He’s very patient and compassionate. Nothing comes before his brother. I think Robbie is a different person because of Tommy, and Tommy is a different person because of Robbie. It’s a beautiful thing to see. It’s just God at work.”
Robbie understands the impact he has on Tommy.
“I think he looks up to me a lot,” Robbie says. “He notices everything I do. It’s an extra challenge to me to be a good role model.”
Yet Robbie is also quick to mention that Tommy also serves as a role model for him.
“We’re very close [and] we spend a lot of time together,” Robbie says. “He’s my inspiration in life. He’s taught me a lot about acceptance and patience. He’s very motivated to achieve goals, which gives me motivation, too. He’s excited about what he accomplishes, even if it’s the little things. It helps me keep in perspective that life is about the little things, not the big things.”
The two children of Ann and Bob Steiner have enjoyed being at Providence together.
“The freshman year has been the best year of Tommy’s life,” says Robbie, whose family belongs to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany. “I’m excited to see him in the hallways having a great time. This year, we were both on the swim team at Providence. That was cool because we had never been on a team or in an extracurricular activity together. That was fun to share.”
This summer, the brothers will also share time together at the national convention of the Down Syndrome Congress in Kansas City, Mo., in August. Robbie will lead a conference workshop for young people whose siblings have Down syndrome. He has also been active in the Down Syndrome Support Association of Southern Indiana, a group the boys’ mother started.
“They have a mutual respect and admiration,” says their mother, Ann. “Robbie is an actor, and Tommy is his biggest fan. There’s no sibling rivalry. They just both think a lot of each other.”
As co-valedictorians, Robbie and Kristin shared a speech when their class graduated on May 26, a speech that focused on the future and how Providence has prepared its 2007 graduates for that reality.
For Robbie, the future includes attending Indiana University in Bloomington, which means he and Tommy won’t share the same school or the same house starting in late August.
“It will be a challenge,” Robbie says. “I’ll have to play it by ear. It will be hard for Tommy and me. Luckily, I won’t be too far away.”
The brothers plan on staying close. †