I have worked in the field of special education for 41 years. Most of that time, I was in public school education. I recently retired but continue to teach at the college level. One of my favorite positions was working as coordinator/supervisor for a post-graduate employment readiness program. It was based on community learning and skills support after high-school graduation. Part of my job was to establish employment skills sites in the community for young adults with disabilities. Our first employment skills site was a local congregation where we all grew in unique and empowering ways. Those young adults became my teachers.
I learned that my friends with disabilities want to live lives just like yours and mine. That includes having a supportive family, meaningful relationships, leisure time with friends, meaningful employment or volunteer opportunities, and a safe and healthy living environment. These components work together to realize the full potential of independence and a sense of self-worth. Most of us want to feel like we contribute to our families, our community, and our world. And so the church might ask itself, “What can we do to contribute, support and encourage the transition to adulthood for our members with disabilities?”
Our first employment skills journey with our newly adopted church family became a lesson on how to work together, and that is my first lesson to share with you. Whatever job or volunteer opportunity is created, it should be done with a mind-set of togetherness – learning, sharing, caring, and laughing together. Identify a task that needs to be done and determine how someone could do that task while maintaining dignity and self-worth. Work together and be an example, a friend, and a co-worker.
We asked the church for a list of jobs to be completed. They originally suggested mostly custodial tasks. But we must ask ourselves, “Would we prefer all custodial work?” Of course not. Although such skills are important and necessary, we usually prefer a variety of tasks and learning experiences. We finally agreed upon a list of useful jobs that were not “busy work.” They did include custodial work (vacuuming, dusting, wiping down and disinfecting surfaces, etc.). But we also did clerical tasks such as stuffing envelopes, folding bulletins, and making name tags. We loved outdoor tasks such as landscaping, flower planting, and community gardening.
Our congregation provided a weekly hot meal for a local homeless shelter. We partnered with the youth group to prepare one meal per month. We learned some great cooking skills with our peers and began to feel like part of something bigger than ourselves. Other groups saw our zeal for cooking and included us in some of their activities.
Our intergenerational church connections grew. Our young adults with various abilities saw the value of completing a task with pride and commitment, working side-by-side. We took small steps together and, slowly, we became friends. Preparing a meal for the homeless was just one stepping-stone on our pathway to building relationships and becoming part of a community.
Does this sound like something you could do as a church family? There were many other stepping-stones along the way. Perhaps I will tell those stories another day. I would love to hear your stories of togetherness.