I recently had the enjoyable experience of attending a picnic at The Botanical Gardens of Western Colorado, where JUCO teams and STRiVE clients and staff ate, played and bonded on a perfect spring evening.
I brought my family, along with my daughter’s friend, to help with the games. It quickly became apparent, though, that we didn’t need to do much more than play along with everyone else. Members of the Iowa Western Reivers team strode casually onto our bocce ball court, and within minutes our job was pretty much done. Between the friendly and helpful players, and the guidance of the two adult clients who are STRiVE’s resident bocce experts, there wasn’t much help needed.
The majority of STRiVE’s clients have moderate to significant developmental disabilities, and it’s often obvious that not everyone feels comfortable about how to interact with them. As the parent of a normally developing child, I don’t know first-hand what it is like to experience other people behaving awkwardly, or even outright rudely, to my child because of a developmental disability, but I imagine it doesn’t feel good.
So it was with great pleasure, relief even, to witness nothing but good-natured camaraderie between the JUCO players and the STRiVE clients, who were uniformly thrilled to be hanging out with those cool young guys. I also couldn’t help but think that this was a great thing to be witnessed by my 11-year-old daughter and her friend.
As community college players, these young men really are young – in their first two years of college, and most not older than 18 or 19 years old. And as some of the best young baseball players around, they end up being role models, whether they mean to or not. I loved that our two girls got to see young men behaving not just well but great, being polite, considerate and supportive to a group of people that doesn’t always get treated well.
I also loved that they got to experience service to the community, from the baseball teams and the many STRiVE employees who volunteered to help out, as something that can be really, really fun.
During dinner, I sat next to Bob Hawkins, who is with the Delgado Community College team from New Orleans. He told me that when Hurricane Katrina hit, the school was damaged and the team’s games were cancelled, so the players turned their attention instead to helping out the many families in the area who were devastated by the storm. Since that time, he said, Delgado has made service part of their team culture.
The aftermath of a hurricane is a lot harder service work than eating pulled pork with enthusiastic fans on a warm spring night, but there’s a lot to be gained from both. When we look for community through service, we find that we all have more in common than not.
The Miami-Dade Sharks may be the team at JUCO this year that is farthest removed from Grand Junction, both in distance and culture. But they created connections with the STRiVE clients almost instantly by embracing them – literally and figuratively – as part of their community.
They were manning the beanbag toss, and I’m pretty sure every person that played went away feeling like they had just won the World Series. The Sharks asked each individual’s name, chanted it over and over, and when the bag finally went through the hole, there were high fives, hugs and big cheers that turned heads from across the field. I saw lots of “team pictures” being taken over there with a grinning STRiVE client as the star player in the middle.
Our family had a great time, and we all went home wanting more of the energy and enthusiasm created by the players and the STRiVE clients. I think we’ll continue to find that in service to our community, and with the Special Olympics state games right around the corner, I think we might know already what our next volunteer commitment will be.
Sarah Johnson is a mother and coordinator of The Parenting Place. She is also a member of the Healthy Mesa County parenting action team. Read her every other Thursday on HealthyMesaCounty.org.