This summer, I had the privilege to work at a day program for people who are mentally/ physically disabled. At first, I was so nervous and was not sure what I was going to get out of it. Being that I had never been in this field before, I had no idea what my work environment would be like. What would my daily tasks be? What were my purpose/ meaning at this place of work? These questions all popped in my head as I got the phone call saying I got the job. Little did I know this was going to be the best experience of my life.
I remember my first day at FREE. I walked and my heart was racing so fast. All I could think about was the fact that I knew no one and today the spot light was going to be on me. At first, I thought I could blend in the background hoping that no one would notice me. Well, I was so wrong about that one. Immediately after our morning meeting, individuals started to come up to me. They literally wanted to know everything about me. What my name was, was I new to the program etc.. You name it they asked me every question possible. As the day went on I thought to myself; if they are so comfortable with getting to know me why was I so worried? These individuals had no clue who I was, yet they made me feel so welcome right away.
Within a few weeks of starting my job, I had finally started to get into the swing of things. At my job, we run it similar to a school. Predominately, this program is theater/ music based, but my classroom focused on life skills. I remember the first time I taught a grammar class. Teaching is not my strong suit and I was unsure of what was going to happen. Could I help these individuals learn? Did this stuff even matter to them? I don’t remember exactly what I taught, but I do remember how it ended. As the period came to an end, the class gave me a big round of applause. Each and every one of the individuals came up to me saying what a good job I did. Most of them have experienced some sort of discrimination in their life. A lot of them know what it is like to feel left out/ alone in this world. As the weeks went on, I began to notice this pattern of encouragement. I remember I commented on this positivity at work and an individual told me their reasoning behind it. They told me that since they know what it’s like to feel left out that they always make people feel appreciated around them. In that moment, I had discovered what my purpose was working here. I discovered why this was going to be one of the best learning experiences.
As the summer went on I got to know the individuals; especially the ones in my homeroom. I knew what time they came in everyday all the way up to what they were going to have for lunch. It’s amazing how within the five hours that I saw them every day I got to know basically pretty much everything about them. I got to know their personalities, but most importantly I got to know who they were. By the middle of the summer, I became so comfortable with majority of them that I was no longer an employee, rather I was their equal. Of course I am above them in authority and they still had to listen to me, but our relationship was more than that. I became so comfortable with the individuals that I look at them as my friend. Most importantly, I no longer viewed them as people with disabilities, just someone attending a program. Sure, I acknowledged the physical/ mental disparities, but never once looked at them differently because of that. It was no longer a label, but rather an acknowledgment that they are people too because they are. Our society puts a label on everything, but in actuality a lot of them are capable of so much. They understand a lot they just might have some changes in their life’s that make them “different”.
It was the end of the summer and it was time for me to head back to college. At the beginning of the summer, I had just viewed this place as just my job. By the end, I was nearly in tears because that’s how much this place meant to me. I had met some crazy amazing people and had learned so much from this place. Working at FREE had taught me to never take anything for granted. Some people are not as fortunate as others to experience life to the fullest. Almost all the individuals I work with are the happiest people I know. They love coming into program to hang out with friends and staff. They appreciated what they have because this is what their life is. It truly is the simplest things in life that matter the most.
I share my experience because most people will never get to go through something like this. My job meant more to me than just a pay check. I got to smile every day at work and be happy about it. It is so sad that disabilities are looked/ treated different within our society. If you are one of those people who treated people with disabilities differently, well you are missing out. Inclusion needs to be within our society and I hope one day we can ALL look past it.