I have to say, I have had mostly selfish reasons for attending the Connections Gatherings, really. Sure I wanted to support Starfire’s mission which I thoroughly believe in! But I also wanted to try and find new people who are interested in History like my son, Joe. The thought is that these people who share an interest with him, would be good candidates for potential new friends for Joe. And Joe went along with me because he enjoys social gatherings; and hey, this is all about him anyway – so I thought that he sure needed to be there. So that is why we started going and that is what I expected to get – which I did, get. But it strikes me now, as I now look back over the last few months, how one-dimensional that thinking was. For now, I realize the quantity and depth of all that I have learned, experienced, and gained from these gatherings – more than I could have ever imagined. It was one of those You-don’t-know-what-you-are-missing-until-you-go kinda things. So, let me tell you what you may be missing out on . . .
As a bit of background information: The Connection Gatherings are monthly regional (5 regions across Cincinnati) gatherings – hosted by Starfire – which are open to anyone who would like to attend. They are meant to provide a means to connect up with people in one’s own community. So the idea is to come to the meeting that is closest to your neighborhood, and hear about the people close to you. Starfire’s four interviewers in each region go out into these communities and meet new people. They learn about peoples’ interests, passions, talents, gifts, personalities, livelihoods, experiences, and dreams. They bring back the stories of four people each month to the Connections gatherings and share these stories. Other people who attend these gatherings may share stories about people they know or have recently met as well. Also, there is an opportunity to express one’s own needs such as: “I am looking for a baby sitter”; “I am looking for a good carpenter”; or, “We are looking for people to help out with Joe’s history project”. That is the basics of what takes place each month.
I began showing up at the Connections gatherings back last year, early in the start-up of these gatherings when there were only 4 to 10 or so people, the majority of which were Starfire staff and Starfire’s newly acquired interviewers. From these interviewers and the few family members who were there, I heard confusion, uncertainty, doubt. There was worry about how other citizens might respond to being interviewed: worries of rejection – and resistance – and distrust. There was skepticism and confusion about how these efforts could possibly bring two strangers into being friends. These voices were heard, acknowledged, and discussed – but, not necessarily answered. Some answers are not easily found.
And yet . . . the troops persevered. And each month new stories were told about people (average citizens) who were more than happy to share their stories. There were several who even said, ”Please call me, I’d love to be involved in this!” Vibrant stories of fascinating people started rolling in: Gardeners, a Health / organic food fanatic, a Pit Bull rescuer, knitters, wrestling enthusiasts, people who love cooking, traveling, competitive knitting (who knew there even was such a thing!), Writers, outdoors men (and women), antique collectors, artists, people who love yoga and throwing backyard BBQ parties. All these people! All in my own neighborhood! All of these gifts, all of this richness is all around us. All of this fun stuff in life – the things we all want to do – the stuff we live for / we can’t wait ‘til the weekend for. It was becoming easy to start to think that maybe one of these people might want to take a fellow enthusiast along to a ballgame or a yoga session or a history event. Joe was getting excited too. At one of the gatherings, he heard about a friend of a friend who is a storyteller. Now who doesn’t like storytellers. “Maybe he could tell stories at my History capstone!”, Joe blurted out. We went home hopeful that night.
At a one of the larger Conversation gatherings, I was in a small group discussion. We were sharing our own stories when one member of the group declared himself a sports fanatic. The conversation was permanently derailed while the four men in my group launched into a rousing discussion of this sport and that / this player and the other. One of the young men had a difficult time making himself understood. That was easily overcome within the context of their topic and others were able to guess or decipher his words as he added his two cents toward who was the best ball player. And on they went. It was as if I wasn’t even there! But I really didn’t mind – I thoroughly enjoyed watching the shared enthusiasm and camaraderie as ‘those disabled’ and ‘those not’ simply became ‘those who love sports’! It was not a stretch at all to imagine these men enjoying a game together at a ball field or at the neighborhood bar.
All along, in each of the meetings, I witnessed other sparks of potential connections as the names of people who shared particular interests were spoken together and intents to ‘hook them up’ were voiced. People found leads for baby sitters, potential yoga partners, and invitations to view train displays. Other people learned of quilting clubs, and crafting groups and men’s luncheons. It became easier to believe that my Joe could find friends thru these Connections Gatherings.
And then . . . it happened! A Connection!! Joe and I were at one of the more recent Connections Gatherings on our side of town. As is the custom, those who were there were broken into small groups to share stories. Joe was in a different group from me, so I am retelling his story as it was replayed to me afterwards. Evidently one of the ladies (somewhere close in age to me – AKA ‘older’) in his group asked Joe if he was still in school. Joe replied, “No, How about you?” She laughed and said that she finished school herself some time ago but that she had went on to become a school teacher. She had recently retired. When Joe asked her what kind of teacher she had been. She replied that she was a history teacher. “A History Teacher!”, Joe’s jaw dropped. And from there the two of them began to talk about all the history she knew and all the history Joe knew and Joe’s capstone and (I am sure) lots about the Civil War and Pioneer Cemetery and this famous person and that one. Reportedly, this exchange was very close to the one I witnessed between the Sports fanatics as the two of them instantly became two ‘history buffs’. Only Joe’s story has an even better ending: The retired history teacher gave Joe her phone number and said, “Give me a call, let’s get together”. Beautiful – right?
So . . .here are some of the treasures that I have REALLY gotten from these Connections Gatherings:
- I have learned to leave options open and to leave room for hope.
- I am reassured to know that, just like me, others struggle with this idea of Connections and yet they push on. It is OK to feel doubts, uncertainties, and fear.
- I have found good company to keep as I try to practice this work of helping Joe find friends and build relationships. Company that offers not only moral support but real, tangible help.
- I have a new sense of what community is really about and what the real priorities in life are. I have learned of the beautiful / intriguing / interesting people and past times all around us. In that, I have learned how valuable it is to take the time to get to know my neighbors and others in my own community. And I am learning how important it is for Joe to spend time in his own community.
- I have learned the value of tapping into other people’s networks and that with each new person who comes to the table, the number of potential connections grows exponentially. I have come to the realization that this method of connecting to other people helps us reach far beyond our own personal networks of family and friends.
- I have witnessed time and again, that when two people who are passionate about the same thing come together, disability disappears as common ground prevails. This notion that passions, gifts, and interests are what bring people together and builds friendships seems more and more believable to me.
- And, most importantly to me, I have learned that this really could work for my Joe.
I highly encourage you to show up at the Connections Gatherings nearest you – I am confident that you will be glad you did. Information on dates and times can be found here on Starfire’s web page.