Tuesday, September 16, 2008

One of the Best Stories of My Life

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.


clairz said...

Things have changed a great deal, as you say. Thank you for reminding us. It's always fun to read about your life, Sylvia.

Margie's Musings said...

What an interesting story, Sylvia. Thank you for sharing it.

pink dogwood said...

I love your story - it is nice to read what is good in this world. When I first came to US in 1984, I was really impressed with all the infrastructure in place to make lives of disabled people a bit easier. I never stopped to think what it took to come to that point. Great thanks goes to people like you who made things better :)

patsy said...

what a nice story.

gail graham said...

My son Jim was severely brain-damaged in an automobile accident in Australia. So your post struck a chord -- people don't usually even think about disability until it strikes a loved one. Unfortunately, at least in Australia, the more disabled you are the less help you get. We struggled for 20 years to get back to America, and two weeks before Jim was due to fly here to join me and his dog Bao, he passed away. Yes, Chairman Bao was originally Jim's dog. Jim was brave, but he lived in a nursing home and it was an awful life. Even if I had the power, I wouldn't put his wonderful soul back into that twisted, useless body. A dear friend put it well. He said: He got you Bao, and he got you home. His work was done.

Judy said...

I am sure you got a lot of satisfaction out of helping the disabled people and your services were appreciated. Thanks for sharing this with us. I enjoyed it very much.

Rain said...

Sounds like a very rewarding job and good to make a difference. So many things we take for granted until we lose some ability ourselves.

lilalia said...

Your telling also made me fuzzy around my heart as well. I once had the chance to work in a women's group where we did some ground-breaking work and it was so effortless and exciting at the same time. I'm glad to know you have such good memories of that time.

Gail, I am sorry to hear of your son's accident and death. My prayers are with you.

david said...

Sylvia, thank you for sharing that story -- as a resident of Great Falls, I appreciate what you have done towards making my beloved adopted hometown such a special place.