In April of 2013 I decided to volunteer at a nonprofit organization called Lifeworks. Stated in their mission statement, “Lifeworks provides customized services for people with disabilities that help them to live full and meaningful lives. We do this by listening to the people we serve and their families to determine what is important to them. We understand that in order to listen we must first learn how each person communicates. We plan with each person in order to follow their lead, rather than direct their path. We consider their interests and gifts, and build relationships with their families and friends, employers, coworkers, funders, and the community.”
I grew up with a passion for writing. I began to explore the many powerful ways that my writing could be used. I started to develop a better understanding of what mattered to me the most and I began to put those words on paper. Some went to poetry, others went to blogs, and some of my most important work was created in an unexpected place: Lifeworks.
When I first told the coordinator I wanted to teach a writing class at Lifeworks, she was a bit hesitant. She smiled but I could tell there was uncertainty in the curve of her lips. I understood why. The people I would be teaching had mental and physical disabilities. Most of them were adults with limited writing and reading skills. I was nervous to make anyone feel that I was setting them up to unrealistic standards or expectations. But a part of me had to do this. I had a vision and a story in my head and I needed it to come to life. I needed to inspire, I needed to be inspired.
That’s exactly what happened. On my first day of volunteering I walked into a room filled with excited, unsure, smiling faces. They welcomed me with hugs and asked me for my name and before I got the chance to tell them, I was already being complimented. “Nice jacket!” one of them said. I was overwhelmed with the amount of positivity I was surrounded by during the very first ten minutes. I knew I was in the right place.
My first lesson was to have them write about themselves, what they liked or disliked. A few spelling corrections later, and I was listening to them read aloud their own writing. A victorious part of me wanted to say “See!” really loud. I knew there was potential if someone just tried to get them to write. Fast forward to some lessons later, and they were writing short stories and poems. Some of them even had favorite writers; including one of my own favorites, Edgar Allan Poe.
It is important to mention that I am aware of the various ways in which mental and physical disabilities can be defined. In my experience with Lifeworks, I worked with adults who were at a fourth grade reading and writing level. They all had different disabilities and stories. I learned a lot during the time that I was there.
I learned that the “R” word really does affect people. I learned that because they expressed it in their writings. In 2013 I took a personal pledge to drop hurtful terminology. I also learned that the stigma surrounding mental and physical disabilities is harmful. What I also learned, is that a part of me was blind before volunteering at Lifeworks. I came in as a “teacher volunteer” but I stayed as a friend and left as a learner. I realized that I had my own preconceived ideas and notions on adults with mental and physical disabilities but the more I interacted with them, the more I began to see the endless commonalities. They were stunningly creative individuals with big hearts and endless imaginations. Everything it takes to be a good writer.
When the coordinator at Lifeworks began reading the client’s short stories and poems, she was in awe. She didn’t know they had it in them, as many people don’t. The one thing we can start doing is believing in others so much that they begin to believe in themselves too.
I was humbled to find an article about my time at Lifeworks and what my new friends had to say about me: Sarah Thamer: Poet, Writer, Trusted Guide
A poem by Ryan:
The past is a powerful thing
And the future is the wisdom of dreams
And the present is forever
And the year is in your soul
It may be in your head
And that may be the future
In your dreams
In the night when you are awake
Your past will make peace