In a time where unspeakable tragedy dominates the news, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and even pessimistic about the future. I'm reminded of Fred Rogers' well-known advice, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."
Based on the Citizen Advocacy model, Do For One’s mission is to develop and support freely given relationships for people with disabilities. By selectively matching one person with disabilities in need of companionship or advocacy with another person who enjoys the more ordinary privileges in life, we promote healthier communities and richer lives. As coordinator, I have been reflecting on the fears and expectations that many people with disabilities are experiencing when entering into relationships. While I’ve been somewhat prepared for the fears that advocates might have in responding to someone in need, what I was less prepared for is the fear that people with disabilities have with this idea of relating to someone who is both not a paid staff worker and non-disabled.
Recently, I was at a support group which consisted of about 35 adults with intellectual disabilities. In clarifying the type of service Do For One offers, one staff member asked the group, “How many of you have ever had an unpaid / non-disabled friend?” Once it was clarified that she was not asking about friendly paid staff or others who have a disability receiving the same services: not a single person raised their hand.
This experience and other recent individual conversations reminds me, while those who are more privileged are fearful of the unknown when entering the relationship, there are many people with disabilities who are also understandably fearful of being in relationship with a non-staff / non-disabled person. There seems to be an underlying question coming from many wounded people: “Am I really lovable like that?”
However, this realization must not discourage us! After all, the most precious gifts in life are often in the most difficult things. So, what are some key concepts and beliefs that help guide us through the social dynamics and to discover the gifts found in relationships between people with and without disabilities?
First, it’s important to realize that people with disabilities are all individuals with totally different circumstances and should be defined more by who they are and their individual story than by the fact that they have a disability. People’s needs and interests will differ widely and therefore we must be prepared to respond accordingly; this is why relationship is at the core of how we respond to people’s need for support. Theology Professor and Disability Advocate, Nancy Eiesland helped me to understand that people with disabilities don’t identify with each other because of their similarities in bodily or mental function, but they identify with each other because of the way that society at large treats them, namely with stigmatizing values and exclusion. Therefore, people need to be known and treated as individuals in order to help discover and foster their own God-given purpose. It’s also important to recognize that people with disabilities still face oppressive circumstances and need people who are in good standing within a community (and not just in human services) to be great allies, helping to reverse stigma and the often downward spiral of further wounding experiences and bring their personal gifts to the community which then lifts the social status of the individual.
Secondly, many wounded people, who have developed an expectation of failure toward relationships, will not know how to grow a relationship, keep that relationship going and maintain a hopeful outlook of the continued growth of that relationship as the relationship ebbs and flows. At times, it may not be fully reciprocal and a wounded person will need someone to be understanding and patient through the many discouraging thoughts of feeling unlovable. People who have been severely wounded will need support for the rest of their life, and so there is no “one-time fix-all” solution. This does not mean that we are to fulfill all the obligations of support. However, it is important to recognize that it is not about finding one big answer that solves it all, but more about the many little, but persistent responses to needs that will reverse a person’s expectations of rejection and help them find the road to healing.
Lastly, it is of crucial importance to believe that such relationships are possible! After all, the dreams and desires of people with and without disabilities are basically the same. We all have basic desires in our lives for love, security, and a place to belong. Most of these needs can only be met through freely given and personal relationships. Relationships between people with and without disabilities are even more likely to happen when people are invited into them by others who’ve done it themselves and when people are asked to do something for another person that they already feel equipped for and are passionate about.
These relationships can come at a cost, but a highly worthy one. We are standing with people who are always at risk of being marginalized, so we ourselves, to some degree, become marginalized too. Relationships across these barriers are transformative, being stretched beyond what we never thought would be possible, developing courage, patience, humor, and forgiveness in ways that would have never otherwise been possible. It is here we find that we too are needy people asking the same question about ourselves: “Am I really lovable like that?” It is here we find Life’s most profound Passions and Joy. It is here we find what Christian tradition has called the “Hidden Christ.”
Inspired by Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” Do For One invites us to treasure an opportunity to align ourselves with those who are considered least important in our society, not only because they’ve become our friend, but because we realize that such an opportunity is sacred.
Do For One is based upon the reality that unless people with disabilities have freely given and supportive relationships, many basic needs will remain unmet. We provide an authentic and personal way to respond to the belief that everyone is of unique and sacred value.
“It is clearly impossible for a system to address the most personal needs of love, caring, responding to human needs and desires. Only PEOPLE can do that.” - AJ Hildebrand
Our invitation is to journey with us through the values and spirit of Do For One. Some may have an interest in working with people with disabilities and resonate with the inherent dignity and hope there is in mutually beneficial relationships between people with and without disabilities. Some may be longing to be connected to meaningful community and see its importance for all New Yorkers. Others may be on a spiritual search for something of greater meaning and sense the prophetic message that weakness and vulnerability calls us to be united with our creator, who through our brokenness makes us whole.
At our info sessions we educate people on what the day to day life is like for many people with intellectual disabilities. We discuss the many unwarranted fears and assumptions that people have about disability and how that often leads to segregation and loss of control for many adults with disabilities. It is through this deep reflection of the situations of devalued people that we develop an understanding of Do For One’s values and relationship centric model.
Quotes from info session participants:
"I was struck by the reality that some of our neighbors never get the opportunity to explore their city on their own terms. The things I take for granted like strolling through a book store for hours, are things that some people are not permitted to do. But why? The info session answered that for me. I learned about the history of institutionalization of disabled persons in the city, the day-to-day experiences of people with disabilities and the inspiring story behind the inspiration for Do For One. I walked out knowing that I had to do something."
"My vision had shifted from being a person who looks out and sees only the brokenness of the lives orbiting mine, to a person who looks out and sees the fingerprint of God's hand on every life - everyone, every life royalty."
BECOMING AN ADVOCATE
If you’re interested in becoming an advocate, here is how we normally discern involvement. Please note, it takes time and coordination to make the right match and could take up to three months. We desire for you to be a part of one of the emerging communities that Do For One has fostered in Roosevelt Island, Upper West Side or Astoria, Queens.
The steps to get involved are as follows:
- Attend an info session click here for the calendar
- Attend at least 3 community gatherings click here for the calendar
- Fill our your advocate profile click here for advocate profile
*note: there are other ways to be involved which you can indicate on the advocate profile
4. Run a seamless online background check
5. Meet potential partners with disabilities to be matched with, we strive to make this intentional yet comfortable for both parties until everyone involved feels really great about the match
6. We then provide support to you through community and additional trainings.
This is the time of year when many of us consider ways to serve the poor and marginalized. We’re living in a time where the world’s brokenness is particularly noticeable and Christmas brings a message of hope and justice to this very broken and dark world. However, too often when serving the poor and marginalized, we focus on what we think people need without actually listening to them. More privileged people tend to see poverty differently than those actually living in poverty do. Therefore, we must become great listeners in order to truly understand how to help.
SO, WHAT IS POVERTY?
The World Bank’s aim is to alleviate poverty in poor countries. In the 1990s they consulted with the poor themselves by simply asking “what is poverty?”
“For a poor person everything is terrible - illness, humiliation, shame. We are cripples; we are afraid of everything; we depend on everyone. No one needs us. We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of.”
“The poor have a feeling of powerlessness and an inability to make themselves heard.”
Cornel West, a well known African American scholar, says this about the ghettos in America:
“… though economic well-being and political clout are requisites for meaningful progress. It is primarily a question of speaking to the profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair so widespread in black America.”
In their book, “When Helping Hurts”, Steven Corbett and Brian Fikkert comment on the above:
“While the poor mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness. North American audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc.”
PRESENCE IN THE FACE OF POVERTY
Several weeks ago a couple advocates and I were sitting around a table with one of our partners with disabilities, when the support staff saw us and said, “Oh.. how nice that you have volunteers who come to visit you.” I smiled at our partner's response, “These ain’t my volunteers, they’re my friends!”
Volunteers can meet needs, though often times temporarily, whereas a friend can get beyond that point. A friend can affirm someone’s dignity through a reciprocal relationship. A friend will see beyond the need and help someone discover their own skills and ways to use these to address the issues. A friend will also provide what they can along the way in order to make sustainable long-lasting change in a person’s life.
There is a chapter in the Bible where Isaiah writes about true service to the poor, “and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” (Isaiah 58:10)
As we look to serve this holiday season, let’s consider ways we can move beyond the hurry and bring heart, presence, and mutuality to those in need … not just by giving them free handouts, but by investing in relationships. Relationships that steward one's own skills and resources and help them move closer toward their calling.