For the past 5 years of my life, I have been working closely with some pretty amazing people. It started in high school with tutoring the special needs students and I worked my way up to direct care in the home. It is something I have dedicated my time, effort and heart to. All of my free time during school hours were spent with the students I tutored and had befriended. By the end of my senior year, the total hours I had spent in a classroom setting with them was around 550 hours. This doesn’t even take into account the time at lunch or outside the classroom I was with them. After graduating, I went on to work for multiple companies doing in-home care for special needs teens and adults. I have never participated in anything as difficult, stressful, emotional and mentally draining before in my life. But, I have also never experienced anything as rewarding and joyful.
One of the classrooms I tutored in had a quote on the wall that said “We come to teach them, but they teach us”. And that is so unbelievably true. I learned lesson after lesson from the students and friends I helped along the way. I have one very special friend that is close to my heart. His name is Greg and he has Downs Syndrome. He’s in the photo above. I tutored Greg for two years of highschool and also had the opportunity to spend time with him outside of the classroom because he lived down the street from me. Greg single-handedly changed my life in more ways than one. He is the greatest friend, strength and teacher you could ask for. To this day, his emails can brighten even the worst of days. I want to share with you just how much it has changed my life to be involved in this work and hopefully pass along some of the lessons and strength I gained.
1. You are stronger than you know.
Being disabled is incredibly discouraging at times. I saw it in the students and clients I worked with every day. Often, this discouragement led to self-doubt and a lack of confidence. Working in the classroom with the students one-on-one, it is up to you to motivate and encourage them to achieve their goals. Sometimes though, they need a reminder of how much they are capable of. They don’t see how they can accomplish what is laid before them, but with a little help and reassurance, they are able to reach the goal. Now, whenever I am facing something and I am filled with doubt, I remember how the students turned their weaknesses into strengths.
2. Kindness never fails.
I have never met a more kind soul than Greg. No matter what he was dealing with or what you were dealing with, he never failed to make you smile. High school was a particularly rough time for me (as it was for all of us). I was dealing with the emotional trauma from my mom leaving and my dad passing away. It was definitely a time where I was discovering my worth and identity. After a hard night of crying alone in my room, I was in class with Greg the next morning. And that morning, without me expressing anything to him about what I was going through, he started telling me how special I was. “Becca, your face is like the sunshine and you make me so happy. I know your dad is here and loves you my best friend forevery. You were sent here to be my angel best friend.” Reflecting on this moment I realized the importance of saying kind things no matter what. Whether someone seems to be happy or sad, say something kind. Greg, in his own sweet way, had told me exactly what I needed to hear. And his kindness did not fail. It did not fail to turn my day and even my week around. It did not fail to make me second guess my sadness and turn it into happiness. He did not fail to make me happy and smile every single day I saw him.
3. Helping others breeds happiness.
Anyone who has ever worked in the industry of serving those with disabilities knows that it is not always the most glamorous work. It is physically, mentally and emotionally draining. It tests every limit you have and expects more out of you than you can usually give. My sophomore year of high school I hadn’t started working in the special education classroom yet. When I compare that year to the following years that were dedicated to the special needs students, I see a significant difference. My whole attitude was completely changed. Truly, these kids were making me happier. Even on days working in the group home holding a client in a restraint after an act of aggression, I was happy to be there. Even after losing a chunk of my hair and getting kicked in the face, I was joyful in the work. Being with these special people everyday and being able to take part in their amazing lives, has brought me happiness that I haven’t found in any other line of work.
4. Everyone has something to offer.
Every high school has a diverse demographic. You have the jocks, the band geeks, the theater kids, the geniuses, the class officers, the loners, etc. But to Greg, there was just one demographic. And that was all of us. He saw everyone as equal. Which is how it should be. Every single student knew who Greg was. He was “bffs” with everyone he met. We would walk down the hall and he was getting fist bumps and hugs left-and-right. We were walking to lunch one day when a boy comes out of the bathroom (clearly he was high as a kite) and Greg gave him a big hug and sent him on his way. I remember asking Greg how he knew the boy and if they were friends. Greg simply answered “Yeah he’s my best bud forevery! He is in my gym class and he is so fast runner”. This completely surprised me. Greg didn’t see and recognize that this kid was failing every class and came to school intoxicated every day. Instead he saw what he was capable of. This is the greatest attribute Greg has, the ability to leave all judgments behind and see a person for their true worth, value and ability. He was constantly encouraging the other students.. Everyone has something to offer, no matter their past, or their appearance, or what everyone else says about them.
5. Your circumstance does not determine your ability.
I have worked with so many different students and clients through the years. I have seen all different levels of functioning. Each disability affects each person differently. I have worked with clients who weren’t expected to even live past the age of 5. And now they are in their late 30’s and holding a steady job. There’s been many students who were never expected to read, write or even talk,but they memorized all 50 states on the map and will talk your ear off like there’s no tomorrow. They do not accept limitations. Never let your circumstance determine what you will be able to accomplish.
Through the years and the many different people I was able to interact with, I have grown so much. Truly, the time I was able to spend with these amazing people has changed my life. Never has anything pushed me and tested me the most. And I have never known such happiness and reward from anything else. It was in my job description to be a teacher and leader to these students and clients, but ultimately, they led me and taught me lessons I wouldn’t have learned by any other way.