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Photo courtesy of Julie Peterson
Emily Peterson uses voice generating technology to converse with her missionary brother, Elder Joseph Peterson, during his recent Christmas Day family phone call to his home in Portland, Oregon.

PORTLAND, Ore.

For tens of thousands of missionaries, Christmas Day meant phone calls home to excited moms, dads, brothers and sisters.

But for Elder Joseph Peterson, his phone call from Ukraine to his family in Portland, Oregon, went far beyond swapping holiday wishes and sharing a few missionary stories.

This year’s family Christmas phone call was “life changing.”

For the first time, Elder Peterson had a conversation with his older sister, Emily. The 25-year-old woman has Rett Syndrome, a rare genetic neurological disorder that began in early childhood. The disease has diminished Emily’s motor skills and stolen her ability to speak.

“The last words Emily ever said, when she was 8-years-old, were ‘thank you’,” said her mother, Julie Peterson.

Emily can walk, but operating a keyboard or other manual devices is extremely difficult.

Because of the age difference between Emily and Joseph, the two have never verbally exchanged words. But new technology now allows Emily to electronically articulate words and sentences. Since Elder Peterson’s departure for missionary service in Ukraine, she’s worked to master an eye-tracking device that follows the movements of her gaze as she focuses on on-screen pictures and commands. The device then “translates” her gaze into audible words.

Elder Peterson knew Emily was learning to utilize the speech-generating device, but it was still overwhelming to converse with his sister during their Christmas Day phone call.

“I heard my sister tell me that she loved me for the first time in my life — and then she started telling me that she missed me and wanted to give me a hug,” he wrote in an email. “Even though I had waited for that phone call with a lot of anticipation, I could not have expected how it felt.

“For the first time in my life, not only was she able to respond to what I said, but she was telling me what she had for Christmas Eve dinner, asking me questions and telling me jokes.”

Julie Peterson said Joseph and Emily have always been close. In high school, the little brother enjoyed having his big sister on hand at his sporting events and other school functions. Despite her physical challenges and inability to speak, “Joseph was never ashamed of Emily; he always made sure she was included.”

Over the years, the Petersons — including parents John and Julie and their children Jacob, 24, Joseph, 20, and Anna, 13 — developed communication methods with Emily that transcended speech.

“I learned to savor the smiles and laughs when I would talk to her,” Elder Peterson wrote. “[Emily] often would express her love to me and my other siblings through physical touch by holding our hands or resting her hand on our shoulders.”

Through Emily, Elder Peterson also learned there is joy in serving others — a truism that has served him well over the past 16 months as a missionary and during his studies at the U.S. Naval Academy.

“Growing up, we as siblings were asked to help feed Emily her lunch or help her take the dog for a walk,” he wrote. “She is the centerpiece of our family. A victory or an achievement for Emily is a victory or achievement for all of us.”

As a missionary, Elder Peterson testifies every day to the Ukrainian people that the Lord remains a god of miracles. Speaking with Emily for the first time, he said, “was a miracle of God — it was the most memorable Christmas I have ever celebrated.”

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