You’ve seen her bright smile on billboards, subways and bus advertisements throughout the New York metropolitan area. You’ve heard her infectious laugh on television. And you may have met her in person on June 4 at the YAI and Broadview Networks Central Park Challenge.

For a girl who will only be celebrating her 4th birthday this month, Norma Xi’an McLaughlin, affectionately called Xi’Xi (pronounced She-She), has already made a big impact on New York City. She recently joined YAI Network spokesperson Sherri Shepherd of ABC-TV’s The View as the face of YAI and Broadview Networks Central Park Challenge, capturing the hearts of countless New Yorkers along the way. The annual event benefits the YAI Network and thousands of people with developmental disabilities and their families throughout the New York metropolitan area who rely on YAI’s programs and services.

Xi’Xi, who attends a YAI Network preschool for children with special needs in Manhattan, loves meeting new people and lights up in front of the camera. But at one time her future seemed uncertain.

Xi’Xi’s Beginning

In September 2007, Manhattan residents Cindy Klaja-McLaughlin and husband Pat McLaughlin planned to stop during their trip around the world in Xi’an, China, for a six-week volunteer assignment at a home for abandoned and sick children with special needs. That’s where a crying baby girl curled her tiny hand around their fingers. The lives of all three were forever changed.

Born with developmental and physical disabilities, baby Xi’Xi was 6 weeks old when Cindy and Pat entered her life. From the start, Xi’Xi tugged at their hearts. “The bond between Xi’Xi and Cindy was sealed on the first day,” Pat wrote on the blog he created to document the couple’s trip. “Cindy spends 8-10 hours a day feeding, holding and bathing her. These two have formed a connection that is both obvious and endearing.”

According to Cindy, “You could see the life in her eyes.” By the time Xi’Xi was 3 months old, the infant needed lifesaving brain surgery. Cindy and Pat paid for the surgery, and at 3 months Xi’Xi was given a second chance at life.

The love that Pat and Cindy felt for Xi’Xi compelled the couple to adopt this wonderful child. Throughout the 14-month adoption process, the couple remained committed. “From the moment we met her, we knew that this baby was our daughter,” Cindy recalls. And in January of 2009, 18-month-old Xi’Xi finally came home.

Welcome to YAI

An overjoyed Cindy and Pat knew that the road ahead was going to be long and bumpy. Xi’Xi was underdeveloped, had limited fine motor skills and lacked the ability to walk.

In July 2010, at age 3, Xi’Xi started at the YAI Network’s Gramercy preschool. Teachers along with physical, speech and occupational therapists worked with Xi’Xi. By August, Cindy and Pat were noticing a marked improvement in their daughter’s mobility and communication skills. Xi’Xi began to rely only minimally on her walker and would interact with her classmates and teachers. And today, the little girl who could once only speak in two-word sentences is thriving. Xi’Xi is often seen running down the hallway toward her friends and teachers.

“You can’t help but smile every time you see Xi’Xi,” says Dr. Philip H. Levy, CEO and president of the YAI Network. “This is a child who a year ago relied on a walker and was shy. Thanks to her teachers and therapists at YAI, her parents and her own determination, Xi’Xi is talkative and confident. That type of growth demonstrates the value of early intervention.”

Central Park Challenge

“We are so grateful to YAI,” says Cindy. “Pat and I didn’t know if Xi’Xi would ever be able to walk on her own. As a parent, it’s hard to describe the sadness that comes from feeling so helpless. But the combination of this determined little girl and YAI professionals who understand how to get the best out of children— you put these two forces together and amazing things begin to happen.”

Celebrating such amazing things was the focus of the day on Saturday, June 4, when Xi’Xi and her family joined Sherri Shepherd at the 2011 YAI and Broadview Networks Central Park Challenge. They were surrounded by thousands of New Yorkers who participated in a 3K fundraising walk and a 5K run. The event was a tremendous success, raising critical funds that directly support Xi’Xi and many other individuals with developmental disabilities.

“I could write a whole text on the ways that this abandoned child has pushed me both physically and mentally,” Pat wrote on his blog. “I have been to places in my heart that I didn’t know I had, that I had not been to in a while, or to places that I had been avoiding for years. Cindy and I have experienced something magical.”

It’s not too late to make a donation to the Central Park Challenge in support of Xi’Xi and thousands of other children and adults with disabilities. Visit to contribute.

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  • Bernadette Flynn, Ed.D.

    Bernadette Flynn, Ed.D., is the senior director of the New York League for Early Learning, a member of the YAI Network. Dr. Flynn received a doctorate in early childhood special education from Teachers College at Columbia University. She now oversees seven preschools, the Manhattan STAR Academy, a new school-age program for children with special needs, and the LifeStart early intervention program, which provides services to more than 1,000 children in their homes and in the community.