Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Paraeducators Supporting Students with Disabilities and At-Risk

Lives, Not Programs: The Option Quest Philosophy

Author(s)

Frances Curley is a Regional Vice President for Community Options, Morristown, New Jersey.

Community Options, Inc. is a national non-profit agency that provides community-based residential and employment supports to individuals with disabilities. Incorporated in 1989, we now support over 1300 people in 10 states and the District of Columbia. Our philosophy is that all individuals should have the opportunities to live, work, play and grow in their communities of choice with the individuals they choose to be with. In other words, just take out the words “with disabilities” and refer to people. Consider the following. When someone asks, “What do people with disabilities do during the day?” there are three traditional answers to the question: get a job through supported employment, attend a day program or sit at home and do nothing. However, if you ask the question “What do people do during the day?” the options increase dramatically. People work part-time or full-time, volunteer, attend classes, participate in clubs, participate in civic organizations, and the list goes on and on. It is the same list of options for people with black hair, people with blue eyes, people over six feet tall, and people with disabilities. The difference is that people with disabilities traditionally have needed “programs” while everyone else developed “lives.”

We advocate for “lives, not programs” and to that end developed the concept ofOption Quest. Option Quest encompasses all the things that “people” do during the day. It is an opportunity for the individuals that we support in the community to have a broad range of experiences and choose the pieces they want to build their lives. Volunteerism has been a strong component of Option Quest.

When most people think about “volunteers” and “people with disabilities” they think that people with disabilities need volunteers. But when you turn this around and offer individuals the opportunity to be volunteers and help others, the rewards for all involved are endless. Through Option Quest we have developed volunteer opportunities at a wide range of locations with a wide range of job responsibilities. Locations include hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, day care centers, animal shelters, county parks, non-profit organizations (like the American Lung Association), schools, and churches – all based in the local community. Job responsibilities include serving food; assisting with recreational activities; reading stories to children; feeding, grooming and walking animals; beautifying parks; collating mailings; just being someone to talk to; and the list continues.

What is the value of volunteerism for an individual with a disability? The same as for everyone else. The greatest value is that of helping someone else. One of the first individuals Community Options helped to find volunteer work stated, “This is the first time I have helped someone else!” It’s the “feel good” factor, and you can’t put a monetary value on it. It is priceless.

For some individuals volunteerism is a first step in the world of work. Being responsible for being there on time and completing the tasks at hand are skills needed in any job. It is an opportunity to build confidence and self-esteem. People appreciate that you are there. It is also an opportunity to try out a variety of jobs at a variety of locations. People can identify what they like to do and what they don’t like to do, where they want to work and where they don’t want to work, what they are good at and what they have to work on.

Many volunteer opportunities are at locations that also offer paid job opportunities. Being visible in the workforce and showing one’s abilities has led to paid job offers. The question sometimes arises, “When should a person with disabilities get paid and when can they volunteer?” This question usually is raised for good reasons. People don’t want to exploit individuals with disabilities. Again, the answer to this is defined by society just like it is for everyone else. I don’t know of any people that have “volunteered” at a major for-profit corporation, the post office or McDonalds. People do volunteer at hospitals, parks, and churches. But people are also paid at those locations. A person with a disability shouldn’t volunteer at a job that someone else would get paid to do. Likewise, he or she shouldn’t get paid to do a job that someone else volunteers at. It’s the same for everyone else.

However, sometimes a volunteer position can change into a paid position, as was the case with two young women in Passaic County, New Jersey. They were both volunteering at a local animal shelter. The owner utilized only volunteers at that time. Both of these women loved their jobs. They worked hard and made a significant difference for the owner. Because of this the owner offered them paid part-time positions. They were so good at their jobs that the owner was able to focus on other aspects of the business and was in the position to offer paid positions. Her words were, “I never had anyone before that worked so hard.”

As part of Option Quest we work to find opportunities for individuals within or close to their local communities. They are seen every day by their neighbors as “individuals with abilities.” They have a value to their communities, meet people, and make friends. They build their personal circles of friends to include people that have common interests, values, skills and dreams because they are spending time with people based on their abilities, not their disabilities. Consider spending every day at the same location with the same group of other people who have the same “inabilities” that you do. That’s what has happened to people with disabilities for a long time, and still does because of the parameters of “programs.”

If you help someone build a life instead of trying to fit him or her into a program, everyone wins. This was the case at the Northern New Jersey office of the American Lung Association (ALA). This office serves a very densely populated area and only had three paid employees. Every time they had a mailing to send out, brochures to fold or filing to do, their other duties came to a halt. We arranged for several individuals to volunteer at their office every day to assist with these tasks. The volunteers gained great satisfaction from their work and the ALA office was able to reach out to more people in their community. Volunteerism is a successful way for someone to enter the community offering something instead of asking for something. There is pride in a job well done, in feeling that you have helped someone and that you contributed to your community or society.

In 1995, we transitioned a day program, previously run by the state, into community-based employment opportunities, including some entrepreneurial businesses. One of the businesses developed is Community Volunteer Connections (CVC). Through CVC, volunteers are dispatched daily to local organizations; some are regular assignments, some are seasonal and some are as needed. CVC has become a welcome resource to the community and an opportunity for individuals who previously attended a segregated day program to work in their communities alongside their neighbors.

There is a large untapped resource of hard working, dedicated, friendly volunteers in every community. They may be sitting in a day program or at home doing nothing. They may also be working and looking for something to do in the evenings or on the weekends. Some of these people have disabilities. But more importantly, they have abilities. John Garino is one of these people. John is one of these people now being recognized within his community for his abilities, not his disabilities. The challenge to everyone who reads this is to help someone like John build a life in his or her community. Volunteerism is a great place to start!