The crowd of 2,100 dwarves in the lobby of Washington's Marriott Wardman Park hotel stops most visitors in their tracks.
There are old dwarves. Young dwarves. Hipster dwarves. There are Asian dwarves. Sporty dwarves. Punk dwarves. Bald dwarves. Surfer-dude dwarves. Country dwarves. Papa dwarves. Mama dwarves. Dwarf couples. Vacationing dwarves. Dwarves in sun dresses. Dwarves in skinny jeans. Dwarves in swimsuits. Dwarves in hip-hop wear. Latte-sipping dwarves. Dwarves who forgot their badges and can’t get into the event. Scooter-racing dwarves. Texting dwarves.
And then there’s everyone else. Gulliver-sized giants who find themselves lost among the Lilliputians.
“I bet you didn’t expect to see this many little people,” one dwarf says in a crowded elevator to no one in particular.
The scene is a little disconcerting. It’s hard to tell if someone is 15 or 35 years old. But then you see one of them holding a Corona Light and you soon figure it out.
They’ve all descended on our nation’s capital for the annual Little People of America conference.
The world's shortest president
Gary Arnold is the 43-year-old, 4-foot-2-inch president of Little People of America. You wouldn't know it at first glance, though, since he doesn't dress very presidential. The conference has more of a cruise-ship feel. He's wearing an orange T-shirt and khaki shorts.
Growing up in Wisconsin, Arnold knew he was different. His parents and two brothers are average-sized. (Scientists estimate about 80 percent of people with dwarfism have average-sized parents.) He played soccer, gymnastics, was even on the crew team. But what he really wanted to play was professional baseball. He admired Davey Lopes, a former second baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Lopes was short — or so Arnold thought. He studied Lopes’ stance, how he crouched so low he was nearly the same size as the catcher. But then Arnold got Lopes’ baseball card, and his dream of playing baseball came crashing down. Lopes was 5-foot-6. At best, Arnold could hope to be 4-foot-9 when he grew up.
“It was a key moment for me,” Arnold says over coffee one morning at the hotel cafe. “I had a breakdown.”
Middle school wasn’t much better. It was known he had a crush on a girl, so other boys in his class would walk on their knees and ask her to go out with them. Another memory from the highlight reel of his youth: On an overnight camping trip with his class, the teachers put on a skit mocking little people. “That was the whole gag,” Arnold recalls. “You know you’re different, but now you know that other people think you’re different as well.”
But those setbacks didn’t last long.
He started attending the annual conferences of Little People of America, a nonprofit organization that offers support for short-statured people. Here, he realized what makes him different is his personality, not his height. He got involved in the group, and eventually worked his way up to vice president of public relations. Later, when the position of president opened up, he ran for that and won. He’s now in the second year of his first term.
Many faces, many places
The weeklong conference is a bevy of activity. There’s a talent show. A fashion show. A group trip to the National Mall and monuments. A session on ancient dwarves of Egypt who were considered deities. Dwarf speed dating.
People from all across the globe fill the hallways and ballrooms of the hotel.
There’s Russell Hayes, a Jewish man from Idaho, Army helicopter pilot and father of a little person, who tells of the three dwarf children he rescued from Iraq. Annet Nakyeyune, who runs Little People Uganda, gives a presentation about how cruelly little people are treated in her country, telling of caged dwarves and dwarf children disowned by their families.
There’s Becky Curran, a little person and motivational speaker, leading a session on how dwarves can better use social media. There’s Amy Andrews, a 3-foot-10 mother of three who leads the Dwarf Athletic Association of America and plans to compete on the soccer team at the 2013 World Dwarf Games next month in Lansing, Mich.
And there’s Warwick Davis, one of the most famous dwarves in the world. The star of the cult film “Willow,” as well as such hits as “Return of the Jedi” and “Harry Potter,” isn’t attending the conference as a celebrity, but as just another participant. He’s there with his wife, Samantha, and two children, Annabel and Harrison. All dwarves, they use the time to mingle with friends, old and new, and attend seminar sessions with everyone else.
“My favorite part of any LPA conference is the unity and support you can find here,” says Leah Smith, a spokeswoman for Little People of America. “We’re all here for different reasons at different stages in life — but we're all very supportive of each other.”
The author and actor Warwick Davis. (Photo courtesy Benyamin Cohen)
Mother knows best
Marzena Piorkowski, an average-statured woman, is a mom of three from Woonsocket, R.I. She came to the conference with her daughter Sabina, a teenager with dwarfism. Her 19-month-old baby also has dwarfism. Piorkowski is a Polish immigrant who moved to the U.S. at age 16, dropped out of high school, got married at 18, and had her first child at 21.
Her kids are her life. She went back to high school last year to finally get her diploma, hoping to show her children the importance of an education. Sabina, a sophomore in high school, will be off to college sooner than her mom wants to think about. Marzena doesn’t know what she’ll do when that time comes. “We’re gonna have to move,” she says, only half-jokingly, in her Polish accent.
She spent around $2,500 on things like airfare, hotel and registration to attend the conference. But she says it’s worth the cost just for the socializing her daughter gets to enjoy. Sure, Marzena can commiserate with fellow parents about the unique challenges of raising children with disabilities. But more importantly, she sees Sabina light up at the convention. She also got a free medical consultation that solved a mysterious ear problem her kids were having. She’s spent years trying to figure it out, and a doctor at the conference — free visits were available all week on the hotel’s third floor — answered her question in five minutes. Problem solved. She says it’s also worth the price of admission just for that.
She flew back to Rhode Island on a Thursday. On Friday, she said, she’s going to start saving “so I can come back next year.”
Sabina and mom Marzena enjoy the sites around D.C. (Photo courtesy Marzena Piorkowski)
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