Volunteering to Out-Prove My Disability?

At first I did it because we all had to. I was in the 5th grade and we were each assigned a 'Reading Buddy', a Kindergartner who we would read picture books with and then do some sort of literacy-related activity. I was roughly the same size as my Reading Buddy but I remember reading together all the classic favorites like Corduroy, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, countless Frog and Toad adventures, and Dr. Seuss' Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories. Back then my favorite thing about Reading Buddy Time wasn't the fact that I was helping some six year-old guess at "what might happen next?" It was the fact that I got to read, and then as the year went on I loved the fact that I was helping my Reading Buddy learn to read, and hopefully - love reading as much as I did.
I also enjoyed the fact that although I was a kid who might be the same size as a Kindergartner, and might have still needed to be pushed on the "baby" swings - it was possible to have someone else look up to me. More than that though I was also able to help this other person share in an activity that I loved so dearly. While it's quite some time ago and I can't remember how it exactly all made me feel, I imagine that I felt important, purposeful, and for once - I probably enjoyed the feeling of being able to offer someone else help as opposed to it always being the other way around. For a ten or eleven year old kid who was always the only one in her school in a wheelchair, that last feeling was huge.

And so it began: I grew to want and love helping others.  

As I grew older I volunteered at Special Olympics, sang at retirement homes, and tutored younger students. Though I never really consciously thought about it at the time, I am sure that a part of my drive for volunteering began with wanting to "prove something" to others. I'm not sure if it was ever just one thing I was trying to prove, but here are a few that come to mind:
1. I don't need as much help as some people might think I do
2. That I have something to offer to society
3. I don't expect to always be on the receiving end of assistance in society

In college I became more involved in volunteering on a different level. During this time I actually avoided one-on-one volunteering opportunities (i.e. feeding the homeless, doing a shift at a food pantry, or helping underprivileged girls find the right prom dress). At the time I wasn't sure if I really believed that those efforts "worked" or made any "real" dent in the larger-scale issues like poverty or homelessness. But more importantly I avoided those opportunities because I wasn't sure who I was yet. I still felt that I had something to PROVE about being disabled while being able to help other people, I just wasn't sure what it was! I didn't believe that I could offer anything to people in those situations (because they were so different from my own), and instead focused my student-run club (Students for Social Justice) on spreading awareness on bigger picture topics. We invited guest speakers to campus, had discussions after we watched documentaries, or went to protests. I still loved helping others, and at each club meeting or event I was fired up and motivated by my passion to educate others on the issues.
The months and weeks leading up to graduation I had a lot of big decisions to make. I was swamped with finals, law school scholarship applications, trying to decide whether or not I wanted to go straight into law school, or if I should continue figuring out what it was I wanted to help others with. Because law school is such an expensive and mentally intensive commitment I figured that if I was uncertain about it then I probably shouldn't force myself to go. So instead of going straight into grad school I opted to do a year of service with AmeriCorps. I wanted to figure out how I could best serve, in what areas of society, and with what populations; law school I knew would always be there waiting for me.

After too many AmeriCorps applications and researching programs I decided to go with an AmeriCorps Mass Mentoring program - this is a corp of (mostly) young people who serve in mentoring programs throughout the state of Massachusetts. Why did I choose the area of mentoring? I have been incredibly lucky to have many mentors in my life. Because I was the only one in my family who was disabled and had many different interests from the rest of my family members, I always sought out mentors to help me in things that I was interested in or struggled with. I recognized that I would not have gotten to where I am today without my mentors and also realized that many students fall between the cracks and miss out on meeting that important connection to another adult in their life. So for an entire year I spent developing a mentoring program for 18-24 year olds at a local community college in Boston!
The work was exhausting and I was frequently frustrated but what kept me going was that similarly to my love for reading, I truly believed in the importance and effectiveness of mentoring. I knew that if I could only have ONE student go through the mentoring program having had a positive experience, and understanding the importance of having a mentor in his or her life then I would be successful.

That was last year, and now a year later I have a better sense of the population I know I can best serve and why it is important for me to work in that area. But what I think is most important to me is that I have come to understand that I will always continue offering assistance to others, but it won't be because I have "something to prove" - now it's because there will always be something in my life that I love (whether it's a way of life, an activity, some issue I am passionate about, or a hobby) and want to share this with someone else.

This is the group of AmeriCorps Ambassadors of Mentoring I worked with!
Tips on Volunteering:
  • A common misconception is that many volunteering positions may require a lot of physical labor. This isn't true at all! 
  • I have found that volunteer programs and coordinators are some of the most open-minded and accommodating groups of people that I have ever worked with or come across
  • Many states will allow you to be involved in a volunteer program while receiving a stipend. These stipends usually do not conflict with the disability benefits that you may be currently receiving
  • Whatever your reason for volunteering just remember that you might not get out of the experience what you were expecting. Most of the time when I have been involved in volunteering my perceptions of situations or people have changed, and for the better!
  • Know that during an interview or screening for a volunteer position - you are never required and nor should you ever feel that you have to reveal the specifics of your disability
  • I have come to find that while volunteering the relationship is one of the greatest moments in my life and in society when the playing field is leveled. No one is judging, staring, or making awkward comments about you - it's always only about the service or help that you are providing! 

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2 Responses to Volunteering to Out-Prove My Disability?

  1. I'm really glad you wrote this one. While in college I met a woman who had her own reading program. She taught (for a fee) children who were having trouble with reading comprehension. We became friends and about a year later she talked me into volunteering at a local reading center. My first (and only) student was a man in his late 30's who never learned how to read. He had a good paying job, family, etc but for some reason he never could learn how to read. So, for months we worked on it, starting with the absolute basics...cat, bat, dog, hog, etc. Unfortunately, because of school I was getting a bit stressed and had to quite. When I stopped he was, if I remember correctly at the 4th grade reading level. Which was pretty darn good considering we started from stratch. I recently found my reading materials the other day and even found one of his papers. Every now and then I wonder what happened to him and if he ever got his GED. I do know that he quite shortly after I did but went back. Sadly, the reading center closed (due to poor management) and there is no way to find out what happened to him. I keep saying I want to volunteer again somewhere but I never do. It was fun and it made me feel good about myself. I kept thinking, "I'm teaching this grown man how to read!" It was an awesome feeling.

  2. Sandy, this is a great post. It has inspired me to get back to having my students be reading buddies. In California we have such a focus on testing and meeting standards, that things like reading buddies are often overlooked. HOWEVER, your post reminded me of the intangible benefits of reading buddies. I've already emailed a kindergarten teacher to set something up. Thanks for this important post.


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