Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Life Changing

When I found out that we would need to do service hours I was nervous.  I wasn’t sure when I would find the time.  I also tend to get antsy when I’m put in new situations.  It wasn’t really worrying about working with disabled people as much as working with strangers in an unknown environment.  I don’t know why I worry.  Whenever I extend outside my comfort circle I end up being very happy that I did it.  The same happened with this opportunity.

I looked through the list of community opportunities.  When I found the Children’s Center I knew that was the one.  I love children, but I haven’t had an opportunity to work or play with them in quite some time.  In fact, when I was young I wanted to be a pediatrician.  Children are generally drawn to me.  They feel safe.

So I went to the Children’s Center for my orientation.  They were very genuine and helpful.  They explained what we would be doing.  It did a lot to relieve my tension.

In a few days I started my actual service.  I volunteered in the morning in a pre-school aged class.  There was about eight students and two teachers.  As soon as you start playing with the children, you are forming bonds.  Though the students may have various levels of disability, (mostly autism) it isn’t readily apparent.  As you get to know them you can see their differences.  Some of the children are very gregarious and outgoing.  Others are quiet and never say a word.  You don’t see it right away, but you can see that some of them have difficulties with human touch.  They may have a larger personal bubble or don’t want to be touched at all.  You have to earn their trust.  In the orientation the spoke about some of the children coming from difficult homes.  None of my children seemed abused, but that might not be completely obvious.

The day will start with us going down the stairs to greet the children at the busses.  Many of the children will run from the bus to hug their teachers.  They were cautious around me.  Then we help the children go up the three flights of stairs to their classrooms.  In the foyer we stop and put away our coats.  The teachers put out a blanket and we sing the welcome song.  Then we get out the lotion and show each other any owies we might have.  Once done we go into the class and have cereal and milk.  The teacher will pull out two books and have the children vote for which one they would like to hear.  Next is play time.  There are different toys each day.  The children are encouraged to share.  I have a preconception, perhaps unfounded, that autistic children have a hard time sharing.  Well, any pre-school aged child would.  But these children really seemed to understand.  Yes, sometimes one would grab something that isn’t his, but he’s quickly but kindly corrected.  After play time we clean up and it’s time for a lesson.  On the first day we learned about our bodies and how they grow.  There are small babies, children, and big people.  The children were very interested.  Afterward, we have lunch.  It was fun watching the children and the inevitable messes that happen.  They get such a concerned look when they spill.  I was only there three hours, but it went by so quickly.

So yesterday, Andy and I were playing together.  He’s a bigger kid and sometimes uses his size to get what he wants.  We were building something and it accidentally fell.  He said an expletive and looked at me with big eyes.  He knew he has said something he shouldn’t.  The look also said, “What are you going to do?”  I replied, “Andy, we don’t use that word.”  He then looked at me questioningly and asked, “Oh my goodness?”  He wanted to know if that was the correct response.  “Yes, Oh my goodness, Andy.”  He smiled and continued playing.

I love this program.  Yes, it is geared to the mental health of children that may be disabled.  But really it’s something that any pre-school aged child would benefit from.  Education from caring adults with a very good child-adult ratio makes for a wonderful experience.  The children feel included and loved.  At this age they probably don’t face much discrimination yet.  None of the children were visibly disabled.  But the skills and lesson they learned here will enable them to better adapt to childhood and adulthood.

We’ve talked about normalizing disability and not sequestering them away.  I agree one-hundred percent, but somehow this seems different.  In a way its preventative.  They don’t live in the center, they’re only there three hours a day.  But I imagine it gives the parents an opportunity to relax from the stress of having a disabled child.  It would feel good too to know that your child is with people you can trust.  In a way, this is like a blind person going through training to be able to walk outside on his own.  These children are learning how to interact with both adults and other children.  A lesson often given was using our words to tell others what we’d like or what we don’t like.  But as I said, this is something all children need to learn.

I think this program must increase the quality of life of these children dramatically.  A safe space with loving adults and interesting children provide a great opportunity for learning.

I’ve decided to continue volunteering here.  It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like I’m doing something fulfilling and worthwhile.  My job doesn’t fulfill me in the slightest.  But at the Children’s Center I know I’m making a difference in a child’s life.  Seeing that trust being built is absolutely priceless.  I’m glad that I did the service.  I only wish I hadn’t have procrastinated.  I’d have even more time with those little guys and girls.


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