Although society may have labeled Debbie Lewis as limited, her loved ones called her contributions limitless. Lewis, known for her friendliness, humor and her bike rides around Vienna, died on Wednesday, May 19, from cancer. She had mental retardation, but that did not stop her love of life and her generosity toward others.
Lewis, who celebrated her 50th birthday several months ago, leaves behind a father, step-mother, sisters and nieces and a nephew. But she also leaves behind close friends and acquaintances who considered her as family.
“She just enjoyed life to the fullest,” said Ryan Eglé, Lewis' next-door neighbor.
A Special Olympian, Lewis grew up in Vienna and graduated from the McLean High School special-education program. She worked at the Kilmer Center for 24 years, reading to students, feeding them, and helping them in the pool. Because she could not drive due to her disability, she would get a ride to Kilmer. If her ride was not available, she would walk or ride her bicycle to Kilmer from her home near Antioch Christian Church.
“Debbie set the bar for her work ethic very high and reached it every day when she came to work,” said Kilmer Center principal Michael Marsallo, adding that Lewis never missed a day of work.
When she was not at the Kilmer Center, Lewis was deeply involved in the community. She worked with children at the Antioch Christian Church, participated in Special Olympics and several relays, and befriended people at Giant and Michael’s while riding her bike around town.
LEWIS' NEXT-DOOR neighbors for 10 years, the Eglés would take her with them on trips to Kings Dominion. Their memories of her are plentiful: dancing the "Hokey-Pokey" — Lewis’ favorite song — at her 50th birthday party; leaving a basket of baked goods and soap on the Lewises' doorstep just this past Easter; and loudly calling for her dog Odie at 5:30 every morning. She would call Ryan Eglé “Brian,” even though she would spell “Ryan” whenever she wrote out his name.
Right after Lewis was hospitalized, Ryan Eglé told her the story of what happened to him when he was in Florida, thinking she might like the story. Eglé was visiting his girlfriend and her family, when he felt the need to pray for Lewis in the car on the way to the airport. After he and his girlfriend finished praying, they looked up at the sky and saw a plane sky-writing, “Jesus loves you.”
Although Lewis had not spoken any words while she was in the hospital, when she heard Eglé tell her the story, she said, “Thank you for telling me that story, Brian. I love hearing those kinds of stories. I know that Jesus loves me. Thanks, brother.”
“There are not many people in your life who only offer happiness and love,” Ryan Eglé said.
Ryan’s brother Jack Eglé also had warm memories of Lewis, which he shared at her funeral on May 22.
“The reality is that without recognizing it, Debbie was teaching each and every one of us what is really important in our short time on this Earth, and this is the greatest gift she could ever bestow on us,” said Jack Eglé.
Many of Lewis’ friends and family felt that Lewis taught them to live cheerfully and generously in spite of any disabilities or hardship.
Stacy Capra of Vienna recalled how Lewis enthusiastically helped out with all of the fund-raisers for cancer research that Capra was organizing. Lewis helped out in many of the Fairfax Relay for Life's activities, from the lip-sync contest to the pie-eating contest.
Lewis also raised $800, and she brought the envelope stuffed with coins and bills to Capra at the Relay.
"She lived her life fully, enjoying every moment no matter what she was doing or where she was going. She gave of herself without thinking about what she was giving, without the expectation of reward or recognition," Capra said.
"She truly believed in the goodness around her, and that's how she approached life. She found goodness everywhere and in everything she did. And she welcomed us into her life with complete openness and trust," she continued.