It’s really hard to be a kid. I think, as adults, we forget about that because we tend to focus on the difficulties of adulthood. But man… It’s tough! Children are self-involved little humans who have to find their way through a world that does not actually revolve around them. My child is no exception to the selfish, one-sighted tendencies that all children work through. Very similar to the annoying toddler that sat behind you on your last flight and the raucous Kindergartener that ruined that dinner you had at the pricey restaurant, Janie Kathryn has all the symptoms of an overindulged, smarty-pants, seven year old. I mean this to convey how much she is just like the kids you have or the kids you know and to tell you how nervous I was to enter the doors at SRVS and not know what to expect.
SRVS (pronounced serves) is a partner agency of United Way of the Mid-South and provides a multitude of services for adults with disabilities. A lot of thought went into this volunteer experience. In the past SRVS has not emphasized volunteer opportunities for children. Janie Kathryn’s participation on this day was an experiment of sorts to see if opening the doors to children would be productive and beneficial or (my fear) more trouble than it’s worth. I tried really hard to explain to Janie Kathryn what it means to have a disability. At her age, examples of disabilities include wheelchairs and Seeing Eye dogs. I told her that these are examples of physical disabilities, but that sometimes other types of disabilities are more difficult to understand or explain. Simply put, in seven year old terms, many people have brains that work differently and cause them to behave or act differently than what we expect from adults.
When we arrived, we met Allison Renner, Volunteer and Activities Coordinator at SRVS. From our communication prior to arrival to the wonderful tour of the facility, Allison made us feel so comfortable. As we walked the halls of the building, we peeked into rooms that were set up like Montessori classrooms. They were so colorful and organized- a teacher’s dream- and full of smiling faces. We popped into one room to visit with a group that would later join us for arts and crafts time. I got three hugs on the spot and several people were very interested in Janie Kathryn. She was a little nervous. Okay, so we were both a little nervous, but that was soon dispelled when our tour ended in the art room and our activities began.
Janie Kathryn and I helped set up and facilitate a painting activity with our first group of friends. Among them was a young woman named Rebecca, who typically keeps to herself (so I’m told). I would have never guessed that about Rebecca because she immediately engaged Janie Kathryn in a conversation about school and asked if she’d like to sit next to her to paint. I could tell that Janie Kathryn wanted to paint, but was reluctant to succumb to the desire. Another hardship of childhood- kids are told never to talk to strangers and then they’re expected to immediately be warm and friendly to new people. Before long, Janie Kathryn was sitting next to Rebecca and joining in the fun. It was very fluid, like a child at art time was just business as usual.
After painting time was over, our first group left and we cleaned up and prepared for a new group of friends (the class we had met earlier). The new activity was decorating fans, only we were short one fan. So, Janie Kathryn came up with the idea to accordion-fold a piece of regular paper, so that everyone had a fan to decorate. It worked so well and one of our new friends, Precious, really took notice and requested that we do the same for her. I helped them with the fan and Janie Kathryn and Precious sat for a long time, sorting markers and just being together. Every bit as endearing as her name, Precious didn’t speak to Janie Kathryn very much, but communicated with smiles and hugs. Again, it was as if a child had always been there.
When we left SRVS, I knew we’d be back. The experience enabled Janie Kathryn, enabled us, to step outside of ourselves and just be present for someone else. It wasn’t easy at first, as neither of us had spent time with anyone with a disability. However, the hugs, smiles, and genuine benevolence from the staff and participants at SRVS overcame everything else. It’s hard to think about yourself when Precious is giving you a hug! “Inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear,” SRVS is an awesome place, but more than that… it’s an awesome feeling.
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