After reading Bobbie’s post today on Almost There, then reading the New York Times and Bob Herbert’s piece on McCain’s health care plan, I decided I didn’t want to look at today, write about today or even think about today. So, I chose to look back at a time in the early 80s and a job that I never expected to get.
We raised our kids in Montana, where my husband was stationed at Malmstrom AFB. When my kids first started to school I had taken a teaching position in the same Catholic school they attended. I didn’t teach any of their classes, of course, but it was fun because we could go to school together in the mornings, come home together in the afternoon and we had the same holidays and shared the same school activities.
Once they moved on to public middle schools, I worked at the library for a couple of years and enjoyed that simply because I got to be around books all the time and books have always been one of my favorite things.
But then one day I saw an ad in the newspaper that tweaked my curiosity. It was regarding a position with a new program in Montana. It was for a director of a local facility for a project called Independent Living, designed to help people with disabilities be able to become more integrated into the community. It was something I felt strongly about, something that I felt needed to happen for the disabled and so, although I knew very little about disabilities and knew no disabled people in the community, I knew I was more than willing and able to learn. So, I put in my application. Three days later I had my first interview.
The project was being directed by a nun, Sister Helen, out of the program's office in the state capital of Helena and she was looking for directors for Great Falls and for Billings. The interview went well and I met a disabled man, Jim Clark, who worked in the local office of the state employment department. He would be working with the new project as well.
I had to admit that I had no experience with the disabled, but that I was willing to learn and that I felt very strongly about the need for such a program. However, no one was more amazed than I was when three days later I was offered the job and I had to ask them why they had chosen me. Thinking about it later, their answer made perfect sense – I didn’t know what many involved with the disabled, considered impossible, I didn’t know what the usual excuses were for why the project’s goals were out of reach, I didn’t see why it couldn’t be done. They didn’t hire a disabled person at the time because there weren’t that many that would even be able to access and do much of what had to be done – that’s how bad conditions were at that time. The plan was to put the entire project in the hands of the disabled once the immediate goals were achieved. I knew the job probably wouldn’t last more than three to four years, and I was more than okay with that as I felt the disabled should, indeed run their own project, but I was excited about being able to help get it moving.
They also hired me an assistant, a Vietnam veteran who, due to wounds he received there had developed epilepsy and had been unable to find work in spite of having a degree in business. His name was David – one more David in my life in addition to my husband, David and my son, David. The next three years were three of some of the best and most exciting and rewarding years of my life.
Our first task was to find and furnish an office with separate space for both David and I. Once that was done, we set about locating as many of the disabled in the Great Falls area as possible. We got lists from hospitals, care givers and state offices. We visited one on one with as many as possible. We set up meetings where the disabled could come and voice their needs, their hopes and we began a list of things to accomplish. Things like providing parking spaces, with parking meters low enough for them to reach from a wheelchair, ramps to enable them to cross streets, attend church; go to movies, access the working environments so they might be able to get jobs, doors wide enough to allow wheelchair entrance into restaurants, stores, offices. It was a daunting task and we met a lot of resistance, excuses why it could never happen.
But over the next three years it did happen, as we set about to educate the public about the disabled. We met with business owners, city officials. We even took part in a school program in local high schools where we brought people with different disabilities to meet with students, to tell them their story about their disabilities, to answer questions. And gradually we began to see such incredible and wonderful changes not only in the disabled community, but in the entire community as they began to accept the disabled as needed and viable members.
Looking back and seeing how much has changed for the disabled over the past twenty-eight years gives me one of those warm, fuzzy feelings just knowing that I had a small part in making that happen for a lot of people in Great Falls, Montana.