When Dave and Dawn Mitchell got a call saying an infant with Down syndrome was available for adoption in Milwaukee, they raced to their car with their two other children.

“I don’t think we could get out of the driveway fast enough,” Dave Mitchell said.

A young man wearing a sunhat at the ocean.
J.T. Mitchell in April 2021 on the beach in Miramar Beach, Fla. Mitchell, of West Lakeland Township, died Nov. 12, 2022, at his house of complications related to kidney failure. He was 20. (Courtesy of Dave and Dawn Mitchell)

It was 2002, and Jake Thomas “J.T.” Mitchell was 8 months old. “We weren’t supposed to leave with him that weekend,” Dawn Mitchell said. “We were just supposed to meet him, but it was too hard on the foster mom, so they just said we could take him home right then. We were so not ready.”

The Mitchell family, which included Cory, 7, and Grace, 6, did a frantic Shopko run to buy baby items, including a much-needed haircutting kit. “He had hair that was taller than he was,” Dawn Mitchell said. “They’d never given him a haircut. … He was a beautiful boy. We just started loving him up. There was something in his eyes that connected right to your heart.”

J.T. Mitchell, a student in the Bridge Transition Program at Stillwater Area High School, died Nov. 12 at his home in West Lakeland Township of complications related to kidney failure. He was 20.

Mitchell would have graduated this spring from Bridge, a school-to-work transition program for students, ages 18-21, who have physical or intellectual disabilities. He was a “gift to all who knew him,” said Caitlyn Willis, the program’s administrator and the school district’s assistant director of student support service. “He has left his mark in every corner of the program. He loved coming to school, and he filled our days with humor and friendship, as well as really great one-liners. J.T. taught us that the best parts of learning come from human connection.”

Mitchell was a beloved friend and classmate, said Eden Carr, 18, of Stillwater, who was partnered with Mitchell in a “unified class” at Stillwater Area High School when she was a junior and he was a senior.

“Everyone knew him,” she said. “He had a little bit of sass to him, which was always really funny. He loved to hold hands or hook arms when we were walking in the hallway.”

Carr said her friendship with Mitchell changed her life. She’s decided to major in special education at the University of Minnesota, where she is a freshman. “I learned how important it is to be a light in other people’s lives,” Carr said. “If I was having a bad day, my mood would totally change after hanging out with J.T. He was such a bright light.”

Two friends pose for a selfie against a blue sky
Eden Carr and J.T. Mitchell got to hang out on the last day of school at Stillwater Area High School in the spring of 2022. J.T. Mitchell, 20, died Nov. 12, 2022, of complications related to kidney failure. (Courtesy of Eden Carr)

Mitchell didn’t have a large vocabulary, but his presence was powerful, Dawn Mitchell said.

“He would call you in by patting his leg or a spot near him,” she said. “That little pat meant ‘Come to me,’ and he had you for the next bit of time. He was going to make you laugh, or boss you around, or just sit peacefully and rub your fingers. It was enough to change the momentum in your head – to ground you again to what was important: spending time and making connections.”

J.T. Mitchell loved ketchup, McDonald’s and Woody from “Toy Story.” He was happiest when boating, swimming or traveling. His two favorite places to visit were the family’s winter home in Destin, Fla., and his maternal grandmother’s cabin in Trego, Wis. He watched “The Incredibles” at lunchtime and “Finding Dory” at bedtime. His favorite phrases were “No thank you” and “Enough.” When family members sang along with the radio in the car, J.T. would yell out, “That’s terrible!” and then start laughing, Dave Mitchell said.

A young man in cap and gown poses between two adults.
J.T. Mitchell poses with his parents, Dave and Dawn Mitchell, in the spring of 2021 at the Stillwater Area High School special-needs graduation ceremony. (Courtesy of Dave and Dawn Mitchell)

J.T. Mitchell grew up in Boyceville, Wis.; Georgetown, Ky., and Hutchinson, Minn. The family moved to Stillwater in 2017. Dave Mitchell works for 3M Corp.; Dawn Mitchell is a social worker for Stillwater Area Public Schools.

The couple has cared for a number of foster children through the years – some for just a night, others for several years. “We’ve always had kiddos in the house,” she said. “Some just need extra love or a safe spot.”

J.T. provided a safe haven for them all, Dawn Mitchell said. “He was often their snuggle buddy,” she said. “They just knew that it was going to be OK. I don’t think he realized what he was doing. He just did it. He always knew what you needed.”

A friend from Hutchinson reached out to the couple earlier this week and said J.T.  helped her through a dark time six years ago. “She said that he taught her to just relax, and that everything was going to be OK,” Dave Mitchell said. “We didn’t even know how many ways he was affecting people.”

J.T. Mitchell connected with everyone from the “lunch ladies” at school to the cable-repairman to the garbageman, Dawn Mitchell said.

“Everyone was super-important to him, and he was going to figure out who you were,” she said. “He taught us way more than we ever taught him, and that’s coming from a guy who didn’t have a lot of words. Just being able to take someone else’s perspective and see the world from someone else’s eyes is pretty amazing.”

J.T. Mitchell was a member of Shepherd of the Valley Church in Afton. He also was a member of the St. Croix Valley Lumberjacks Special Olympic team, participating in bowling, track and basketball.

A celebration of Mitchell’s life will be 1-5 pm. at Bradshaw Celebration of Life Center in Stillwater; a private funeral service will be held at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, the family is asking for donations to the J.T. Mitchell Memorial Scholarship, which is being established for seniors at Stillwater Area High School interested in working with people with developmental disabilities.

“He’s not done making a difference,” Dawn Mitchell said.