Behind every champion – a team of volunteers

By Serina Cole

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” – Albert Einstein

For most of his young life Matt was excluded from many extra-curricular activities. He’s watched his friends and school mates have the opportunity to play ball, have fun, and live the life of a typical teenager while he sat and watched from the bleachers. Matt has autism and is known to have some very challenging behaviors. He was even turned away by his own school after wanting to join their Special Olympics team. Despite his intellectual disability, Matt has the same range of desires, needs, emotions and dreams as the rest of the population. “I just want to be on the team” — this was Matt’s dream. As a coach and Delegation Coordinator for Special Olympics, I work with a tremendous group of volunteers, and I knew we could help him achieve his dream. We invited him to become a Mosaic Mustang. At our first basketball practice he was so excited it was a disaster. After much patience, practice and encouragement from his team mates, coaches and staff — Matthew excelled at the individual basketball events. Little did I know that Matt enjoyed his time so much he began watching the Winter Olympics at home to learn how to become a true Olympic Champion.

Finally! It was time to compete. Matt carried the torch for our team in front of his friends and family. At every event he gave his all, doing the very best he could. During the medal ceremony, his faced beamed when they placed a gold medal around his neck. Without hesitation, he lifted the medal to his mouth and bit it as hard as he could. Confused by his actions, I later asked him why he did this — “Because, Mrs. Serina, that’s what real Olympic champions do.” In that moment, I realized we had a made a young man’s dream come true.

Throughout March we have been celebrating the possibilities of individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities. In doing so we must also celebrate many unsung heroes that help discover and tap into those possibilities — our volunteers. If it were not for my volunteers with Mosaic, Matt would not know the pride of being a champion.

Volunteers have an enormous impact on the health and well-being of our community. Think of all the ways they make a difference in day to day life. The ability of people to work willingly together for the betterment of their community and themselves is a valuable resource. Some might argue that with all of the economic stress and uncertainty in our country today, how can we realistically expect anyone to be willing to volunteer? This probably stems from the rather outdated perception that only bored, wealthy housewives and retirees engage in volunteerism. But actually, volunteers can and should come from all walks of life from all economic backgrounds, experience and interest. With many families struggling due to lack of time, financial resources or both, can we, as Wacoans really afford to give away our time and talents without compensation? Can we afford not to?

Let’s take a look at some numbers. Nearly 25% of Texas residents volunteer in some form or fashion. This equates to more than 4.8 million volunteers and 586 million hours of service according to data reported by the Corporation for National and Community Service. This is $13.2 billion in services contributed across Texas. Think about the financial impact if we were to replace these service hours with paid staff! These numbers are astounding, but what do they mean to us? Volunteers deliver critical services—from serving as volunteer fire fighters or participating in search and rescue, to delivering meals to homebound seniors or homeless youth. Volunteers tutor, teach, mentor, coach, and support young people with everything from math homework to dealing with personal crises. In my experience with Mosaic, it means an afternoon of arts and crafts, cooking classes, teaching sign language or just simply sharing an hour of your week to be a friend to someone who needs a compassionate ear or kind word.

Volunteering to work with individuals living with I/DD makes a difference to some of the most vulnerable members of your community. There is an overwhelming need for volunteers for this population of individuals, and in Waco there are many opportunities to serve. I encourage you, even implore you, to consider becoming a volunteer for a special needs individual, group or organization. Without our Mosaic volunteers, there would be a void we could not afford to fill.

Finally, here is one way to visualize the impact of volunteers in our community. Imagine if one day, all the volunteers simply did not show up? What would our community, parks, schools, places of worship and most non-profits in Waco look like? What opportunities to grow, learn, and thrive as a community would be lost?

Note: If you are interested in volunteer opportunities working with the I/DD population, please contact Serina Cole, Mosaic of Waco. 254-757-3434 Ext: 209 or serina.cole@mosaicinfo.org.


Serina ColeThis Act Locally Waco blog post was written by Serina Cole. Serina lives in Cameron, Texas, but commutes over 120 miles a day to fulfill her passion to serve individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities. She has worked as the Community Relations Manager for Mosaic in Waco, to create opportunities for individuals with I/DD to pursue a meaningful life in a caring community, giving a voice to their needs. Serina is very involved in the I/DD community as a volunteer, educator and advocate. She volunteers as the Delegation Coordinator and coach for Mosaic’s Special Olympics team and serves as the Secretary for the Waco Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities. She is a recent graduate of Waco’s Leadership Plenty Institute, Class of 2014-2015. She states she has fallen in love with the Waco Community and how the city embraces the opportunity to serve, love, protect and care for those in need.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

 

 

 

My Journey Discovering Autism

by Kristy O’Brien

Do you know what autism is? Fifteen years ago, even though I had worked at the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) and Brookhaven Youth Ranch in West ISD, I had no idea what autism was! I carried on with counseling sessions at TYC and teaching mathematics at Brookhaven as if the boys were average. I had no knowledge of autism interventions, and in the beginning, I didn’t even realize that a few boys were diagnosed with autism. As my curiosity arose, I began to focus my career on Special Education. I went on to graduate school, and accepted a job with Waco ISD. I started teaching a class then called ‘Autism Unit’ at University High School, which is where I met several students that had many strong capabilities, but in different ways. My students began to teach me how to teach them!

With March being National Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month (NIDDA), and April being Autism Awareness month, I wanted to share some information I’ve learned during my journey working with individuals with autism. Below you will find a few things I’d like everyone to know.

What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a form of Intellectual Developmental Disorder (IDD). Autism is a group of complex spectrum disorders of brain development that typically appear during the first three years of life. Research shows that 1 in 68 children have an ASD diagnosis, 1 in 42 boys, and 1 in 189 girls (CDC, 2014). Autism is a lifelong neurological condition that affects each individual differently, in varying degrees of severity. It affects people of all races and socio-economic status. Individuals with autism are often unable to interpret the emotional states of others; they may fail to recognize anger, sorrow, or manipulative intent. Autism impacts the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction, communication skills, and sensory integration. Children and adults with autism typically have difficulties in communication, social interactions, and leisure activities.

Strategies for Positive Interactions

Individuals with autism may require different levels of support. It is common for persons on the spectrum to feel easily overwhelmed by interactions and environmental stimuli. As an educator, when I work with children and adults with autism and other IDDs, these are some things I try to keep in mind; these techniques can be applied to everyday life as well.

Use visuals and tactile materials to promote sensory learning

  • Avoid long strings of verbal instruction
  • Let child use a computer instead of writing
  • Protect child from sounds that hurt his/her ears
  • Place child near a window and avoid using fluorescent lights
  • Don’t ask child to look and listen at the same time
  • Use printed words and pictures
  • Generalize teaching
  • Teach Self-Management

 Inclusion Is Important

In addition to the strategies above, I’m always thinking about how I can help students with and without autism have positive interactions with each other. There are several opportunities for students to socialize with peers, both inside and outside the classroom, such as inclusion classes, electives, clubs, choir, and athletics. Yet, inclusive socialization can still be difficult sometimes. In the beginning of my career, it was a challenge getting to know my students with autism. One particular student I had was non-verbal, did not write, nor have any sign language. His name is JD. I learned that he would run out of the classroom. We needed a game plan, quick! I began working with JD on completing assignments, and then we would take a walk or run on the track field. I soon realized that he would be a great athlete for Special Olympics. JD was also able to join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program at University High School, along with several of his peers. He made new friends and learned new skills: how to wear military uniform, do military push-ups, volunteer, and march in cadence at the Waco Veteran’s Day parade and football games. JD loved his JROTC class the best! JD is now 23 years old, volunteers in the community, and participates with Mosaic’s Special Olympics adult team in Waco.

It is essential that all parents create opportunities to talk with their children about respecting and welcoming peers with disabilities. Inclusive efforts such as Special Olympics ‘Meet in the Middle’ program, which allows young people of all ability levels to join together to serve and lead their peers, schools, and communities, are very important as they provide a means for positive exchanges.

Support During Transition to Adulthood is Needed

Transitions can be exciting and scary. Students and families don’t always know what to expect when the school bus stops coming. It is important that schools and community members collaborate to support families as youth with autism and other IDDs transition to adulthood, so that this can be a smooth process.

As individuals with autism and IDD transition into adulthood, it is crucial that they have learned self-management strategies. This allows students to achieve higher levels of independence in the classroom, as well as the community and workplace. Learning to use the public transportation system is one of the many skills individuals on the spectrum have to learn, since most adults with autism and other IDDs do not drive.

Besides learning at school, students can also learn in in the community by shadowing professionals, interning, and/or working. Unfortunately, employers are too often unwilling to hire individuals with disabilities, due to stereotypical beliefs about specific disability labels. However, job coaching and ‘carving’ the students for job skills will better prepare them for employment and for independent living. Providing internship and employment opportunities for individuals with IDD is one way to help. If you would like to employ or have individuals with IDDs volunteer at your business, you can contact local school districts or organizations such as Special Olympics, Mosaic in Waco, Heart of Texas Autism Network (HOTAN), or The Arc of McLennan County.

Waco, what all can we do to help plan a better future for our next generation? I encourage you to play an active part in making ours be a supportive community to those affected by IDDs. There will be many activities going on locally in celebration of Autism Awareness Month and that will be a great way to become more involved. Together we can bridge the gap for every citizen of Waco, including those with IDDs!


Kristy O'BrienThis Act Locally Waco blog post was written by Kristy O’Brien. Kristy is the Secondary Behavioral Specialist for Temple ISD. She attended the University of North Texas and received her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Master of Education in Special Education. Kristy is also a graduate of Tarleton State University, with a Master of Education in Educational Administration. Kristy is a board member for Mosaic in Waco, Heart of Texas Autism Network (HOTAN), Special Olympics, and Community Resource Coordination Group (CRCG) of Bell County. She enjoys being involved in the community and looks forward to new adventures in life. She is a volunteer for Mosaic in Waco, as the Special Olympics coach. Kristy has a vision to motivate, inspire, encourage, and teach the children of today! She is a voice for individuals with disabilities, and advocates for creating an equal opportunity to continue every student’s higher education and involvement in the community.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

 

Inclusion makes a beautiful community

March is National Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month (NIDDA).  This Act Locally Waco blog post is one of a series which will be posted Tuesdays throughout the month of March to raise awareness and build understanding about some of the issues, challenges and possibilities associated with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. – ABT

By Serina Cole

I have lived in small towns most of my life.  It comforts me to know everyone on my block. I like that I went to school with most of my sons’ teachers.  I know by name and reputation every elected official in my town.  I call them by first name and in most cases, I call them my friends.  You may not have the whole town round for dinner once a week, but when there is a crisis – like a fire on a farm or somebody losing their dog – you will be amazed at how the community rallies together.  I’ve seen our town shut down for football games and for funerals.  This is community to me even though t’s not perfect by any means.  I’m not sure if a perfect community exists, but I love this description of one: An inclusive community is open and accessible for all.   In this community, each member is able to take an active part and is safe and empowered.  In an inclusive community, citizens’ voices are heard and their contributions are acknowledged and valued by their neighbors.  In an inclusive community, every person is respected as a citizen who can fully exercise her or her rights and responsibilities.  It is a community where each member brings unique strengths, resources, abilities and capabilities.  WOW!  Is there such a place? Because I want to live there!

I borrowed this description from the American Association of Intellectual Developmental Disabilities’ (AIDD) journal. The title of the journal is Inclusion and it reports on the inclusion of individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities and their place in society.  The concepts of integration and community based services for individuals with I/DD have influenced public policy, in turn affecting public practice.  Phrases such as “least restrictive environment” and “mainstreaming” emerged as part of landmark right-to-education legislation.  More and more we see inclusion taking place in our community, but inclusion is more than just placing people in neighborhoods, schools, family homes, places of worship, regular recreational activities, and so forth. It is about supporting people to become connected and to be a part of the place or activity.

In my time as an advocate for the I/DD community, I’ve encountered many types of people.  For the most part, the message I share has been embraced and the support has been astounding.  But, there are always the skeptics, those who don’t agree with my way of thinking.  Even after the patient explanations, careful arguments, foot stomping disputes and frustrated tears, there are people who just don’t agree that this special needs population has a place outside of the state school or institution.  It was only a few months after I started with Mosaic as the Community Relations Manager that we had to fight to save a woman’s life when her doctor didn’t place enough value on it to save her.  We won that battle and were able to persuade her family to agree to a minor operation that saved her life. But, we lost the war because the doctor remained unmoved and resolved in his belief that she wasn’t worth the effort.  Do you question the value of people with intellectual disabilities?  What possible contribution can they make to your community?  It’s ok if you do, I understand!  Honestly, I would have the same questions had I not grown up with my brother with special needs.

I have the pleasure of working with a young man named Johnathon.  He receives services from Mosaic, a HCS (Home and Community Based Services) provider in Waco that provides support to individuals with I/DD. Johnathon is also an advocate for the I/DD population.  He shares his story with others hoping he can change perceptions and open people’s minds to the endless possibilities his life holds.  I want to share part of his message with you now:

My name is Johnathon.  I live in a Mosaic Group home and work part-time in the Mosaic office.  I stayed with my mom until I got into trouble.  The police picked me up from my house and I went to jail.  I had to go to the courthouse to see the judge.  She told me instead of going to prison, she would give me 10 years of probation and let me move into a Mosaic group home.  While I was on probation, I had a baby girl.  She is 9 years old today.

Mosaic helped me stay out of trouble.  The talked to me and helped me get the therapy I need to make me a better person.  I learned right from wrong.  I’m no longer on probation and am free to live my life without restrictions.  I do things I enjoy.  I like to stay busy and work hard.  One day I want to help people.  I want to go to college.  I have big dreams for myself.  I know anything is possible if I try hard enough.  I am a dad, a volunteer, an employee, a student, a champion, an artist, and a friend.  I am proud of the man I am today!

Johnathon is an inspiration.  How many of us can say we are all these things!  While he may not understand his purpose, Johnathon knows his value.  His story offers only a glimpse of what can be possible when the right supports are in place.  He has so many aspirations for his life because he’s been given permission to dream!  As I kid I had a poster that read, “Before the reality comes the dream.” We have to start somewhere.

What will it take to realize this vision of an ‘inclusive community’?  There must be a shift in focus in viewing people with disabilities according to their deficiencies and limitations to focusing on their strengths and capacities. People need opportunities to share their gifts and strengths.  Both in our professional and personal lives, we must promote and practice the values of acceptance and hospitality for all people. If we don’t, how can we expect it of others? Hospitality is not a heroic virtue, but a commonplace part of everyday life. We must all be active participants in making our communities welcoming places for all. Join with me in these efforts.


Serina ColeThis Act Locally Waco blog post was written by Serina Cole. Serina lives in Cameron, Texas, but commutes over 120 miles a day to fulfill her passion to serve individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities.  She has worked as the Community Relations Manager for Mosaic in Waco, to create opportunities for individuals with I/DD to pursue a meaningful life in a caring community, giving a voice to their needs.  Serina is very involved in the I/DD community as a volunteer, educator and advocate.  She volunteers as the Delegation Coordinator and coach for Mosaic’s Special Olympics team and serves as the Secretary for the Waco Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities.  She is a recent graduate of Waco’s Leadership Plenty Institute, Class of 2014-2015. She states she has fallen in love with the Waco Community and how the city embraces the opportunity to serve, love, protect and care for those in need. 

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

 

National Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month: Out of Sight, Out of Mind No More!

March is National Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month (NIDDA).  This Act Locally Waco blog post is one of a series which will be posted Tuesdays throughout the month of March to raise awareness and build understanding about some of the issues, challenges and possibilities associated with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

by Serina Cole

Sometimes I catch myself thinking back to my school days and wonder, “Whatever happened to Joe Smith or Cheryl Maddison?” I’m sure I am not alone. I wonder about the quiet boy in the back of the room, the school bully, the classroom sweetheart – where are they now? Typically, a quick Facebook search will satisfy my curiosity easily enough and all is well.

When you stroll down memory lane, do you ever think about the ‘special’ kids? You know the ones who attended the Special Ed classes because they different from the rest of us. While we are making our way through college, marriage, parenthood and just life in general, it’s not very often these kids cross our minds. Why should they?

I can tell you the story of one sweet red headed boy with certainty. Jimmy has Cerebral Palsy and has been bullied most of his life, not only by his class mates but by his siblings and family members as well. They didn’t understand his disability. Out of fear they avoided him on the playground, dunked his head in the toilet, they called him names and made him feel worthless. It’s a sad story and unfortunately so very common. Jimmy had a Grandpa who refused to let his grandson become a victim to his disability. There wasn’t a battle he didn’t fight and lose when it came to his grandchild. Every time the child was told, “no, sorry you can’t” – his grandfather was behind him, “Yes Jimmy, you can!”

Fast forward 20 years… After graduating from Texas Lutheran University, James Littleton received a full academic scholarship to Emory University where he received a Master of Divinity. He now serves as the Associate Pastor of a church with over 3,000 in his congregation. He has married and plans to start a family. He is passionate about helping others to realize their full potential and value. He is no longer the young victim in the corner crying. He is the hand reaching out to kids like him embracing them with love and compassion. When the world is telling them, No, you can’t, he is shouting back, YES! We Can. This story is about my brother and my hero. His story has a happy ending, but how many others do not?

Each year we celebrate March as National Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month (NIDDA). We want to utilize this time to bring awareness and promote the inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities in our community. People with intellectual developmental disabilities (I/DD) experience significant limitations in 2 main areas 1) intellectual functioning and 2) adaptive behavior. These disabilities were once referred to as mental retardation. The R-word is outdated and since the passage of Rosa’s Law in 2010, has been replaced in many states with “intellectual disability.” Special Olympics, Best Buddies and supporters across the world have inspired respect and raised consciousness about the R-word in their campaign, Spread the Word to End the Word. They maintain that respectful and inclusive language is essential to the movement for the dignity and humanity of people with intellectual disabilities.

I like to use the phrase out of sight, out of mind when it comes to society’s easy dismissal of issues they don’t feel affect them directly. Why should we worry about what happens to those kids in the special education classes? Here are some basic truths: WISD allocates over 8 million dollars a year for providing special education programs to more than 1,600 students (10.6% of the student population). There are more than 50,000 individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities receiving services in the state of Texas at the cost of $145,000 per person each year. This is a significant investment! Every day I talk to parents and family members living with loved ones with intellectual disabilities. One parent put things into perspective when she told me, “I just don’t want my son to be a burden on society.” This is a concern for parents and should be a concern for our community. We must change the perception that I/DD is a burden and embrace the talents and abilities of these individuals as contributions to our community.

It was President Ronald Reagan who declared March to be Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month in 1987, urging “all Americans to join me in according to our fellow citizens with such disabilities both encouragement and the opportunities they need to lead productive lives and to achieve their full potential.” Today people with I/DD are living and working in the community, pursuing a higher education, falling in love and living life to the fullest. Collectively we can build a welcoming community through education and outreach. It is my hope you will join in celebrating the lives of those living with intellectual developmental disabilities.


Serina ColeThis Act Locally Waco blog post was written by Serina Cole. Serina lives in Cameron, Texas, but commutes over 120 miles a day to fulfill her passion to serve individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities.  She has worked as the Community Relations Manager for Mosaic in Waco, to create opportunities for individuals with I/DD to pursue a meaningful life in a caring community, giving a voice to their needs.  Serina is very involved in the I/DD community as a volunteer, educator and advocate.  She volunteers as the Delegation Coordinator and coach for Mosaic’s Special Olympics team and serves as the Secretary for the Waco Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities.  She is a recent graduate of Waco’s Leadership Plenty Institute, Class of 2014-2015. She states she has fallen in love with the Waco Community and how the city embraces the opportunity to serve, love, protect and care for those in need. 

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.