“Failure is a detour, not a dead-end street.” (Zig Ziglar)
From someone, I heard about how some disabled people, who are unable to maintain employment, go on social security disability in order to receive income to live on. Thinking: “What harm would it do if I apply for SSDI?”, I decided to fill out an application. Less than a month later, in August 2002, I got approved, and I am still on it today.
Two months later, in October 2002, I find a potential part-time job opening in Jackson, Michigan. The company, the Jackson Center for Independent Living, was a non-profit organization ran by and for disabled people. Once I read their newspaper ad seeking computer help, I realized that was the place where I wanted to work.
When I went to the job interview, I was surrounded by a group of disabled individuals, most of them in wheelchairs. Very nervous was I, as I met the company leader Tom Swain. After a long discussion with everyone there, I felt a little disappointed when I found out it wasn’t a paid position. However, after hearing its mission and vision statements, I decided to work there as a volunteer. Now I realize this was the place God wanted me to be.
At the JCIL, I became a VISTA volunteer, which stands for Volunteers In Service To America. Receiving a government stipend every two weeks to help pay for living expenses, I became the Coordinator of the Jackson Talent Exchange, a community program based upon the Time Dollars concept.
Both the Jackson Talent Exchange and Time Dollars were grounded on the principles of human decency, interdependency, building community, and the belief that “everyone has talents to offer to society, even the disabled.” How both programs work is that “a member utilizes their talents to help another in need, then receives credits based upon the hours they worked, which can be used to receive services from the helper or another person in program, in the future. So if John works three hours to help Sally mow her yard, then John gains three hours which he can use to receive help from Jerry, to teach John how to learn a computer program. The concept is to exchange talents to each other in need, which satisfy needs, grow interpersonal relationships, and grow community, through acts of kindness.
Being the lead coordinator of the Jackson Talent Exchange program, I felt very unconfident and insecure in my abilities to do the work, as I had no prior experience. I also had many fears of screwing things up, ingrained by my stepdad as a child.
At first, I felt very uncomfortable around my new co-workers, but that quickly ended, after I realized how loving, kind, and considerate everyone was. Tom Swain, Connie Hinton, James Cyphers, Brenda Bobon, Phil Lancaster, Parrish Stahl, and Beth Bufford (volunteer) were peers with a disability, a strong support system I desperately needed. Catalysts for great change and freedoms in my life; without them, my life would probably remain defeated, worthless, and fragile still today. I owe these friends my life.
Not only did these friends help me with insight, encouragement, and guidance, but their unselfish compassion and acceptance of me has helped me erase much of the shame, insecurities, and fears of my abuse. Their influence on me, in addition to the work of the Jackson Talent Exchange, made me realize that I, in spite of my illness, can and am a contributor to society. This belief, as you will later see, may have produced great change in the world around me.
The people at the JCIL were like parents and brothers and sisters I never had. Not only were they mentors to me, but they almost always listened to me in my troubles. Their influence together helped me to mature as an adult and also to accept myself, in spite of my disability. They were the beginning roots, in me learning the fact, that disabled people are the same as nondisabled individuals. We may have worse limitations than others, but we all have, in other areas, strengths to contribute to society; if we only see them, and make use of them in God’s designed way. That’s what I learned from my friends at JCIL, as well as from being the Coordinator of the Jackson Talent Exchange.
James Cyphers led me to Dr. Carl Rice, Jr., a former therapist of mine, who is now the board of commissioner in Leonia township of Jackson, Michigan. Similar to JCIL, Carl Rice also had made a major influence in my life, helping me to manage my mental illness, including experiences with abuse. Rice furthered my growth in self-esteem, my relationships with God and humans, fears and anxieties associated with my stepdad. He always told me to “follow the truth. It will set you free.”
Like a Goodwill Hunting story, Rice, in addition to friends at JCIL, became the starting roots of me believing “I can do all things through Christ with strengthened me”, not to mention “Nothing can separate me from God’s love.” Rice helped built the necessary stability and growth of my courage, confidence, and self-love, which has continued to blossom since he stopped being my therapist.
The Jackson Talent Exchange
Being the Coordinator of the Jackson Talent Exchange at first was very difficult for me; however, with the support of Rice and my friends at JCIL, I progressed with growing confidence. As the Planner, I recruited new members through the creation of brochures and flyers, wrote and gave speeches, planned community social events, and did much research. In relation to current members, I created a database used to keep track of member personal information, talent exchange transaction data, remaining balances in each member’s account, etc.
Connie was not just a helper of mine; she was, and still is, a true friend. Right now, she is the only person, other than Beth, that I see on a regular basis. Like a mother, she refers me as her “son”; and like a “son”, I view her like a “mother”. Connie ranks very high as one of the most influential person in my life in the last ten years. When one of us is in need, the other helps the other out. In essence, that is the vision behind Jackson Talent Exchange: to love one another, to be there when your brother or sister is in need, and to build relationships in the process.
Around 2004-2005, the Jackson Center of Independent Living merged with disAbility Connections. By then, my two-year limit of being a VISTA volunteer ended. DC, though, hired me as an employee to do the same job. At first, this created enormous anxiety in me. But in time, I became increasingly confident and comfortable in my duties.
At disAbility Connections, I made $10.30 a hour, working sixteen hours a week. In addition to JTE work, I was also a caregiver to Phil Lancaster, who was in a wheelchair. ( I did this job at JCIL also.) Since Phil was gay, I felt a little uncomfortable around him, especially after telling me: “If you were ever willing to have sex with me, I would be happy to do it!” It also seemed weird to help him go potty, as I daily slid his urinal bottle inside and down his sweatpants, so he could pee in it. Obviously, nothing happened between the two of us!
Phil and I did do a lot of activities outside of work together. I would either go to his group home, or he would JTA bus transportation services to my apartment. We would watch sports together, and as we grew as friends, we disclosed personal information to the other. Even though he would ask advice about his relationships problems with other homosexuals, I still listened and try to give advice, for he was my friend.
In 2010, Phil and I went to the Michigan Theatre on a November afternoon, to watch the University of Michigan versus Michigan State University football game on the big movie screen. The game was real good, but that wasn’t the eventful part of the day.
When I got home there were police cars, ambulance, and TV reporters at the crime scene of a murder at my apartment complex. I heard the murderer had a severe mental illness and decided to decapitate a woman. I was shocked at the site as I realized I lived the kitty corner from the building where the beheading took place. After the scene, I talked to Phil and others, and he was very supportive to me. That’s what friends are for.
The jobs of being a coordinator and a care giver, had at least one thing in common: it involved taking time out of your busy schedule, and using that time to help someone else less fortunate than you. It is about using the skills that God created each of us, for a greater purpose, to show love through acts of decency and kindness. Even though as a person you may not realize the impact of significance of your actions, the other person often does, and so does God, all the time. Showing love to another; people reciprocally utilizing their talents to help to the other in need; and building relationships and community, that was what the JTE and care giving is all about.
The Jackson Talent Exchange was terminated three years after existence, due to lack of growth in members . I blamed myself for the termination, even though one of my bosses, and my co-workers all told me “I did a good job”. Only God knows the truth, how effective my efforts were, in trying to produce a Jackson community that cares for someone other than themselves. I don’t know, but I know it, at least reinforced the significance, in my heart, the dire need of “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
In spite of the fact, that in this world, there is people to behead and murder others and that there is people who abuse and belittle one another, there is also good people living around us, and there is hope of a better world, because of love and self-sacrifice. We daily must find those people in need, and let the power of compassion do its work. Even if there seems like there is no growth outside your world, do it anyways! That is the spirit of the Jackson Talent Exchange.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” (Helen Keller)