I write often about my personal journey in this work and life, and all the forks in the road along the way. The last few years have been full of mentors, leaders, and teachers that have given me a new perspective on what it means to live and work in the world. I’m thankful for each of them.
One of my earliest teachers in this work/effort/life is Leslie Whitt Williams.
About 10 years ago, I was the “Volunteer Coordinator” for Starfire. My job was to recruit people to help “chaperone” the “outings.” I was really good at it. I was proud of the way I was able to bring them in, get them to fill out paperwork, sign them up for outings….the processes of the job. I knew it was also important because volunteers made the “outings” more fun. But I never really thought deeply about why that was, or about how there might be something more to do than “outings.”
For each volunteer, I would ask them to come to Starfire’s office on Victory Parkway and do an “intake” meeting (I put some of this language in quotes now because that kind of language doesn’t actually help anyone live a good life. It just serves as either meaningless jargon, or a weak attempt at giving myself professional credibility. It’s not a natural way to talk to or about people.)
At the “intake,” I would present them with a bunch of information: How to Interact with People with Disabilities (as if there were ever any one tried and true way to interact with any plurality of people at all), History of Starfire, and How to Sign Up For Outings were all the kinds of topics I would cover. I would also ask them about what they liked to do, where they lived, etc. Again, I was really good at all of that.
I began each of these volunteer “intakes” with a question: “Do you have any experience with people with disabilities?” (Again, this seems silly to me now. It was based on my faulty thinking that anyone could actually have a translatable experience between two separate people because both shared a label of “disability.”)
Most people would say they had a brother or cousin or neighbor, or that they had volunteered or worked at some agency/camp, or they would just say “no.”
One day about ten years ago, two sisters called me and said they wanted to volunteer at Starfire. Both were in high school at the time. I think Megan was a senior and Leslie was a sophomore. I can clearly picture them sitting in my office as we chatted.
When I asked them if they had any experience with disabilities, Leslie said “Sure! One of my best friends at high school has Down syndrome.”
I can still remember how shocked I was to hear that. It was the first time anyone had said anything like that, and the fact that it is seared into my memory ten years later tells you what a deep impression it left on me.
We continued on with our “intake,” but things were never the same after that. Leslie’s words were a wake-up call, the first of many that have followed over the years. If she was able to state simply that she had a best friend with a disability, then that meant it was possible for others as well.
I got to know both Megan and Leslie well over the coming years.
Leslie continued to teach me as a volunteer: She has the most natural way of talking to people with disabilities. I’ve literally never seen it from anyone else. There’s no hint of condescension or patronizing tone, no playful humor, no overly positive “awwww” lilt in her voice. There’s no pity or impatience or dismissive trivialities. She simply talks to people as she talks to everyone. I know this sounds strange, but it’s true. It’s like she’s immune to our society’s way of subconsciously creating the “with-their-own-kind” mentality around people with disabilities.
And Megan has also led the way in showing what helps in the lives of people with disabilities. She went on to graduate from college, and then did a year of service as an AmeriCorps volunteer at Starfire, helping us launch Starfire U. Since then, she’s gotten a job at the Cincinnati Public Library and is married to a really great young man, and they still volunteer with Starfire. But Megan has also formed a deep friendship with a young man who was in danger of getting lost in the “disability system.” She has stood by him over the past four years as he grew into a caring and valued citizen. She invited him to her wedding and she and her husband include him in various parts of their lives. She has pledged to be a part of his life forever. So she is now one of the people in the bottom quadrant of the 51 People chart for him.
I once told Allisa (Megan and Leslie’s mom) that whatever she did to raise two such amazing, smart and mindful young women needed to be bottled and sold.
After high school, Leslie went to study law at Case Western. She asked me to be a reference for her for as she looked for summer jobs and other places to build her resume. I was not happy to see Cincinnati lose such an amazing young person (to Cleveland, of all places!), but I knew she was heading for big things.
But before she could really get started, Leslie had to leave school and come home to battle for her life against Mitochondrial Disease.
She and I are friends on Facebook, so I’ve gotten to see the pictures of her wedding, and Megan brought her over to visit Starfire a couple of years ago. When she walked in, everyone was, as always, drawn to her. And, as always, she spoke in that distinctively indistinct and natural way with each person she met. It was like listening in on conversations from the inclusive future we all dream of.
This week, Megan invited me to this Facebook “event” with these words:
My beautiful, intelligent, funny, incredible little sister is dying from a genetic disorder called Mitochondrial Disease. (More details here: http://www.umdf.org/site/c.8qKOJ0MvF7LUG/b.7929671/k.BDF0/Home.htm) She is rapidly running out of time…
One of the items on Leslie’s Bucket list is to fold 1000 paper cranes. According to Japanese legend this will grant one wish. I propose we help Leslie along and all fold a crane (or two, or three, or four!) in her honor. Maybe she’ll even get her wish!
If you would like to participate, grab a square sheet of paper, fold a paper crane, and write/stick/draw/glue some inspirational words, encouragement, positive thoughts, wishes of your own, etc., onto the crane!
Get them to me by 09/01/12 and I will string them together for her. Pictures/video of yourself in the process or with the finished product will also be appreciated.
Let’s show Leslie just how much we value our fellow man! Even if you don’t know Leslie, that’s OK! The more people that participate, the better! I’m leaving this open, so please invite anyone you wish.
Edit: This has gotten huge! (Which is amazing!) Thanks to Crystal of Little Free Radical (http://littlefreeradical.com/) we now have a PO box where you can send your cranes.
Little Free Radical ATTN: Cranes for Leslie PO Box 850673 Braintree, MA 02184
My personal address is 15 Meadow Ln, STE 12, Highland Heights, KY 41076 Either address is acceptable.
Thank you, everyone!!!
So here’s your call to action: Will you make a paper crane for Leslie? We need to get them in by September 1st (next week!)
I would love it if we could make ours yellow, because yellow is the color of friendship. And maybe we could pledge to follow Leslie’s (and Megan’s) example and look for personal ways to build natural friendships with our neighbors with disabilities, partly in honor of Leslie’s way of living in the world.
It seems like the perfect way to pass on the lessons Leslie’s taught us.
It’s funny to me that when I met them, I thought I was going to teach them “how to interact with people with disabilities.” They taught me how to do that on that day. And I will do my best to live out that lesson for the rest of my life.
And it’s funny to me that Leslie asked me to be a reference for her, because if she vouched for me, I’d consider it a treasure.