Impact Feature Issue on Paraeducators Supporting Students with Disabilities and At-Risk
Why Volunteering Matters to Me
I am the chairperson of Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE), and the Self-Advocacy Coordinator of the Louisiana Self-Advocacy project. My position with SABE is volunteer. SABE is the national self-advocacy organization, and I have been on its board since 1994, when I was elected as a regional representative. My job in Louisiana is a paid position, and my responsibilities are to start local chapters around the state, do training, and be people’s advocate, as needed.
I want to share my thoughts and experiences as a volunteer. My very first volunteer job was when I lived in Texas and I helped a group of kids (ages 6-8) on a baseball team. My friend’s family asked me to one of the team’s practices, and I asked if I could volunteer. I was in special education, and this was a team of typical kids, but they accepted me. My job was to be behind the scenes giving the kids encouragement by calling to them things like “You can do it! You can hit the ball!” The team won first place in their league and then first place in the tournament. This was the first team that had done that in one year. At the end of the year the team had a big picnic and gave me a plaque that said I was an honorary team member. It made me feel really good about myself to help others and to be recognized, especially since the relationship between me and my parents was a little rocky at that time. The next year we moved to Oklahoma, and because of the move, I couldn’t work with the team again.
I first heard about the Corporation for National Service (which runs VISTA and AmeriCorps) later on when I was in high school and working at a sheltered workshop part-time in Tulsa. I wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer. I didn’t really pursue that. Instead, I was moved to a group home from my parents’ home, and I worked full-time at the sheltered workshop. My only volunteer work at that time was at church, where I was an usher on Sundays. Then one day I learned about what was then called Tulsa Self-Advocacy Committee in the Tulsa ARC newsletter. I wanted to change the address on my voting card to the group home address, and I decided to go to a meeting because the program that night was on voter registration. I went and got my voting card changed. I didn’t go to any more meetings until a year later. I saw the advisor, Michelle Hoffman, at the fair and she invited me back. I told her I wanted to go to the meetings, but the group home didn’t want to provide transportation. She said she would give me a ride, and she did that for every meeting after that.
Michelle and I became good friends, and I later became president of the local group. I started a job in a clothing store, and I volunteered my time with People First, going with Michelle to other towns and helping to start groups. My brother Joe lived in Broken Arrow, so when a group started there I got him involved. When I was doing that volunteer work, I didn’t have as much flexibility with my time as I wanted because I lived in the group home and worked at the clothing job. A year after I started at the clothing store, I moved out of the group home and into my own place. Two years after that, I became a VISTA volunteer with People First.
To make a long story short, I’ve come a long way, and it is because of the volunteer work I did. That work gave me confidence and let me believe in myself, and it taught me skills that I have needed ever since. My experiences have convinced me that it is really important for young people with disabilities to have opportunities to volunteer. Volunteering can help people believe in themselves, gain the confidence to do things others may think they can’t do, and to show people that people with disabilities can volunteer, no matter whether it’s a local YMCA, local food bank, a library, or a baseball team. We can contribute to our communities. Doing volunteer work when one is young helps to keep a person from getting stuck in the social service world. It can also help people learn leadership skills and other kinds of skills. It’s easy for us who have disabilities to accept the view of the world that we are incapable, and to take that for granted. Getting involved in volunteer work helps us to get away from that stereotype. I hope people will encourage young people to have these opportunities, because they are the next generation of leaders of the self-advocacy movement.