“Our guys have the same goals and the same aspirations as you do too, but only with a different timeline.”
Susan said this sentence many times over the last few days when we were volunteering in Springfield, Missouri. She is the director of Champions Athletes of the Ozarks, an organization that focuses on training and improving the lives of people with disabilities, majority of them diagnosed with autism, in the local area.
She is a caring and compassionate woman, who has an incredible passion for this nonprofit, as she has been with it for 40 years. Who knows how many lives she has saved, but according to David – the autistic friend we have just been close with, she is everyone’s protective guardian. Helping her to arrange the office last Tuesday morning, I came to realize that there are basically too much work for this woman to handle: legal documents to archive, emails to read, grants to apply for, curriculum to design, and most importantly, individuals to care for. And I guess she’s old-fashioned, that’s why she refused to follow my suggestion when I mentioned Evernote as a tool to keep track of her work.
Anyway, what definitely attracted us were the fascinating stories about the individuals we were working with that she told us. There’s Alex, a 16-year-old boy who’s obsessed with Tomas Trained reading. There’s Cory, same age with Alex, who enjoys playing his Gameboy more than anything else. And there’s David (mentioned above), who’s been living with Susan for years and becoming much more high-functioning than he used to be. I, Cubby, and Ryan worked with David on Monday reading in the first day and immediately made personal connection with him. Talking about Monday reading, it’s the training program to teach mentally low-functioned people math (under coupon ads) and basic levels reading.
I was paired with Ethan, a 20-something guy, who claimed himself to be excellent at basketball. He’s very easy to work with and I did easily connect with him. He said to me that they will have a basketball game on Sunday and would love to see us attending (unfortunately we have already been leaving Springfield by then). Later of the night, we interacted with Alex and his mother Brenda, and heard his great story of coming the long way from an excessively violent kid to a fun and lovable teenager. It’s also crazy to know that his dad had just died the night before.
Asides from that, the huge proportion of our volunteer time was dedicated to painting and bowling. Susan’s working on moving into a new 4000-square-ft office space (compared to the existing 1600-square-ft one) and she needed lots of help. We almost finished painting the new office (with the help of painter man Eriq Chris!), ripped out the old carpets, and cleaned up. It was hard work and tiresome but everybody seemed to enjoy doing it, knowing how much this would mean to Susan.
In addition to that, we had 3 straight nights of bowling: the first night in Aurora, the second night in Branson, and the third night in Springfield. We interacted with a host of different demographic and age groups, and found the experience fantastic. Despite obvious mental/physical limitedness, there were some incredible bowlers who went against all odds and killed the game. They invented very unique bowling postures which worked and helped them overcome their bodily obstacles. Nonetheless, I was most impressed with the friendliness, joy, and optimism that each of them expressed. Their current state might not be as well-functioned as other able bodies, but they are creating their own stories of unbelievable efforts to overcome challenges and stay undefeated.
To echo the views of many other peers in this trip, my definition of health definitely expanded. The work done by Champions Athletes of the Ozarks is significantly bettering the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and many other aspects of health for individuals diagnosed with various types of disabilities in the local community of Springfield. I will highly recommend checking them out at http://www.championathletes.org/. I am glad that I had the opportunity to volunteer there, on my quest to becoming an active citizen of the world.
Last but not least, in the process of practicing sharing gratitude everyday, I want to thank:
- Susan for opening our eyes to the community here and giving us the opportunity to learn by working with disabled people.
- David, Alex G, Teresa, Claire… and all other individuals we are lucky enough to meet with – y’all are an inspiration to us.
- Naomi and Ryan for being such awesome site leaders – from the reflection / “getting deep” sessions to multiple bonding activities including Cards Against Humanity, Volleyball, Cooking.
- Tina for being the “coolest person in Denison” that I’ve known. From the crazy dances to the Serial Podcast, I feel grateful to call you a friend after this trip.
- Cubby for being the center of everyone’s jokes (hopefully you don’t take that personally) – but seriously though, thanks for driving, staying true to yourself and getting out of your comfort zone at the same time.
- Chloe for being open to conversations whenever I wanted to engage. And we killed it on the pasta! I hope the “universe” keeps us good friends – or “bros” if you’d like to label that way.
- Kristine and Grace for sharing geat insights on health and volunteerism that really enlightened me.
- Handi, Gemma, and Wit for silently adding values to the group dynamics. Each of you has great character and personality, and I hope that you enjoy this experience as much as I do.
P.S: Break Away is a national nonprofit organization that promotes the development of quality alternative break programs through training, assisting, and connecting campuses and communities (http://www.alternativebreaks.org/about/). This year, Denison has 4 trips: one to Springfield, MO, one to East St Louis, MO, one to Baltimore, MD, and one to Selma, AL.