Last week, I was invited to attend a conference. What I thought would be an opportunity to network with other special needs activists turned into a profound experience that left me feeling both encouraged and challenged in new ways.
I had been invited to The Arc of Virginia State Convention 2012 by one of its organizers, Andrea Anderson. "It's so much fun!" she wrote to me in an email. I thought to myself, "How much fun can advocacy be?" The Arc spends a lot of time fighting for individuals with Special Needs. It is a passionate bunch of folks who should be commended for their work, but sometimes passion can lead to a lot of talking and impassioned speeches. These are great, but most of the time they don't necessarily lead to a lot of fun. With shame, I admit that my expectations for fun were set low.
When I arrived, I was greeted by a smiling guy named Chip Dodd, and I was instantly glad to see him. I had met Chip at a couple of local startup events and hackathons here in Norfolk, VA. Chip works with individuals who have special needs full-time, he always has a smile on his face and he loves to talk about beer. What is there not to like about the guy?
"Can you emcee the karaoke tonight?" Chip asked with a smile on his bearded face. Karaoke? Seriously? Andrea had mentioned this in an email as well, but I thought she was being facetious. "Um, sure no problem," I said, not sure of how to emcee karaoke, let alone for a room full of special needs advocates and adults with special needs. He saw my hesitation. "Oh dude, it'll be fun. We'll set up after dinner."
We had our meal and we went to the room where the karaoke was going to go down. It was slammed full of people. It was an "Oh Snap" moment in my brain because they were all waiting to have an awesome time, and our lack of setup was holding them back from singing the theme to The Titanic. Another look from Chip, whom I suspect was thinking the same thing I was -- "We gotta grab the gear!" -- and off we went. We were instantly flanked by two ladies who were gonna help move the small studio Chip had in his minivan, complete with mixing board, laptop, monitors, speakers, speaker stands and mics.
As we got the equipment in the room I was listening to the conversations around me, and they were laced not with impatience, but rather positivity and one important question: "What can I do to help?" People all around me were asking this. "Can I move that table for you?" "How do you want your chair adjusted?" "Are you comfortable?' " "Are you too hot? Do you want me to get you a drink?" There was an amazing outpouring of support for one another.
I was roused from my thoughts with a tap on my shoulder from Chip. "Hey man, these bucket stands are too light. Can you go fill them with sand outside on the beach to make them heavier so we can put the speakers up?"
Within seconds there was a cry from a young lady in the crowd -- "I'LL HELP!" -- and boom! she grabbed a bucket out of my hand and ran outside to the beach to fill it with sand, all before I had the chance to say, "Sure." I ran outside to catch up, we filled the buckets (which were already half full with 2.5 gallons of cement, by the way), and again she sprinted ahead of me, putting me to shame with her speed and strength. But I couldn't help but smile at her tenacity and willingness to help with a pretty difficult task. Needless to say, everything got set up finally after the speakers went up.
After my mini workout, I sat down briefly to ponder all of this. I was having a great time. Wow! Who would have thought that? I wasn't hearing impassioned speeches about the need for more government funding (those came later in the week because it is needed), but spending an evening with people whose goal for the night was to have good time. I began to think about how much I complain about my job or my life at times, and began to think that I needed to change. That I needed to be more positive. That it is my life that should be pitied, not theirs.
That night, karaoke got off to a late start, and my emcee position was taken over by a young man with special needs who, not surprisingly, volunteered for it. I was more than happy to abdicate, and he did a fantastic job. Instead of emceeing, I was able to watch a group of individuals with special needs have a really incredible time singing songs and form new friendships. I was humbled by the attitude of everyone in attendance that night and how the room was filled with positive emotions and filled with hope, despite circumstances that society says they have no hope. Society wants to pity them, but what I saw empowered them.
Did Andrea's prediction that I'd have fun come true? Absolutely. More importantly, what I witnessed at the conference inspired me to reexamine my daily life and my habit of complaining and looking the other way when people need help. It made me realize I gripe too much when I should be seeking to help others around me, just like that young girl who put the needs of many above her own comfort so that everyone around her could have joy on karaoke night. What I saw in her and everyone there was amazing, and I hope that as I grow even older, I can make that a part of me from now on.