East Texas native Ashley Haden never imagined her life would look this way, but God has used her difficult story to not only shape her community but to also impact people around the world.
Ashley grew up in the piney woods of Longview, Texas, where she attended Kilgore College and eventually graduated from the University of North Texas. She met her husband the day before her freshman year in college, and both had dreams to start and raise a beautiful family like the ones they had grown up in.
Their lives quickly changed, however, when Ashley gave birth to their second child, Elise.
“My daughter has severe brain damage and is deaf and blind, with cerebral palsy and epilepsy,” Ashley said. “Elise is nonverbal and is in a wheelchair. She is what you call ‘full care.’”
Ashley said she felt like her dreams had been shattered.
“Her birth presented major challenges for us. It felt like everything had been taken, as far as from our daughter and what we would’ve loved to have had—the relationship with her, the things that aren’t going to happen for her or for us as her parents,” Ashley said. “Many stories have a pretty bow to tie onto them, but ours is not so much that way. Yet even within the struggle, we decided to run to God, not from him. And we have never been the same.”
Over the next 15 years, as Ashley and her family raised Elise, they began seeing how God was taking the pieces of their broken dreams and creating an even more beautiful masterpiece.
Ashley started a blog chronicling stories of life with Elise, and these stories impacted people in countless unexpected ways: pro-life organization Texas Right to Life featured Elise’s story in front of hundreds at their gala last year; doctors and physicians, and even the Center for Disease Control, have studied and learned new medical insight from Elise’s case; the University of Texas at Tyler hosts Ashley every year in one of its classes to share about educating special needs children; and Elise’s story was even shared to people around the world on an internationally broadcasted Christian television network.
The impact of Elise’s life has flourished and spread into the Hadens’ local community and even into the halls of Texas government. Ashley is a frequent speaker to several local churches and women’s groups, is involved in a pregnancy resource center where she shares hope with women considering aborting their children, and she even testified to the Texas House and Senate committees this year on legislation to end late-term abortions that remain legal in the state.
“Being a mom with a child with medical challenges, I know what it feels like to be asked if you want to abort your child, and that’s a feeling not many people have,” Ashley said. “Even just that question can set them off in a direction of life that they may regret later. And you’ll notice that many abortion activists and lawmakers like to use my daughter’s story—a very rare case—as if it’s a main reason to abort because you’ll save trouble and no one wants to go through this. But I’m trying to convince people otherwise.”
“Despite the hardships, we can’t imagine life without Elise. She wasn’t a mistake,” Ashley continued. “We are thankful for her life, see the incredible value in her, and have seen the most wonderful things happen because of her. Just because she is this way hasn’t stopped God from using her life to powerfully shape us and others. In our weakness, He is strong, and seeing what others say and how they learn from her is so extraordinarily satisfying to me.”
Ashley added that she loves finding new ways to share Elise’s story and influence people, one of which is in the political realm. A year and a half ago, Ashley started a “salt and light” civics ministry at their church, where she encourages, educates, and provides simple actions for Christians to begin shaping their local communities and governments with the truth and hope of the gospel.
“I want to see our Christians make the most of the life they’ve been given, to not just sit around and gripe and complain about all of the important issues facing us, but let’s actually do something. Life is too short to waste time,” Ashley said. “Contact our elected officials to encourage them to be bold about what they promised to do. Vote in every election to choose leaders who will actually change laws toward what’s right. Use our personal stories and lives to impact others.”
Ashley said when she looks back on her story thus far, she is so thankful for who she’s become because of the difficulties and the unexpected journey.
“A lot of people look at our lives from the outside and see our daughter and think, ‘Gosh, thank goodness that’s not me.’ And I get that, but I would be less of a person now if we wouldn’t have had her and had the struggles. I would not be as close to God,” she said.
“And I’ve learned this: with all the disappointments we may feel in each step of life, we can either bundle them all up and wear them on our backs like a heavy load that cripples us the rest of our lives, or we can literally just offer them to God and say, ‘This is yours, not mine. Take it, and I know that You have better things for me.’ ‘Better things’ doesn’t always mean ‘easy things,’ but when I trust Him to let Him hold the pen and write my story, we know His life for us is always good.”