Wednesday, July 22, 2015

My Son's Job With The Developmentally Disabled Taught Me How To Live With Gusto

A few months ago my son, Tristan and his girlfriend, Becca, invited me to an art show put on by their work, Injoy Life Resources. They are both full-time life coaches for adults with developmental disabilities. 

I told them I couldn't make it. After photographing an event in Murrieta that morning my back pain and ear infection were almost too much to bear. But during the hour and half drive back from Murrieta I felt a strong urge to drive to Whittier and surprise Tristan and Becca. I'm still glad I did. 

I watched their members sing at the top of their lungs to songs that now remind me of them, especially Sara Bareilles's "Brave." I never liked that song until I watched Rob sing it loudly from his wheelchair. Who, afterward, repeated "I'm so glad I got out today. You never know what can happen tomorrow." I was infused with so much joy that I forgot my back pain and ear infection. 

Their members showed me how to LIVE with gusto. They didn't act as if they had disabilities or limitations. 

So I asked myself why am I always surrounded by people without disabilities acting as if they did? Why do the people I interact with every day complain/whine/bitch/moan about how much their life sucked or weren't excited about anything? 

A few weeks ago Tristan and Becca spoke at church about their work at Injoy. I've had many conversations with Tristan about the difficulties he's faced in his job. He insists it's rewarding and his passion is clearly stamped all over his face as I watch him with his members. Tristan agreed to be my guest blogger this month wanting to share his talk from church to raise awareness for people with developmental disabilities. 

My name is Tristan for those of you who don't know. I'm turning 24 at the end of this month and I've been coming here to New Heart for almost three years now. I grew up here in La Mirada for most of my life and I currently work at Injoy Life Resources. It's a different location from Becca's but the same company. I've been working there for a little over a year and a half and that's pretty much what I'm here to talk about today.  To advocate for the community that  I work with, to share their struggles, their triumphs, their stories.  

Most of you who have talked or met with me know that I am very shy and an introvert.  It's how I've been all my life.  And believe it or not I was a lot worse when I was a kid.  So just for me to be up here speaking in front of all of you is crazy.  I would never do this in a million years.  But because I'm so passionate about the community I work with, I wanted this challenge. 

Growing up I had little to no interactions with other children or adults with developmental disabilities.  In elementary school I remember 2 maybe 3 interactions with them and they were very brief.  During middle and high school, I had absolutely no interactions.  The special needs classes were always kept separate and far away from the other kids.  So up until I turned 21, people with developmental disabilities have always been this big "unknown".  Whenever I saw someone with special needs it was always scary for me.  

So before working at InJOY, I've had quite a few jobs.  I worked at Subway straight out of high school at the age of 18 for 3 years as an assistant manager, worked at Jamba Juice for a few months in the summer, and then for the City of La Mirada at Splash.  And they were all customer service jobs and I hated them.  

I found out about InJOY through Becca.  She had been working there for years and told me all of her stories.  So naturally I was very very hesitant at first.  But at the time I really needed a job so I said if I apply and get the job, this is where God wants me to be.  I scheduled for a tour, applied right after, and when I got home they called me to schedule an interview.  So I did the interview and got the call during a small group with Pastor Danny that I got the job.

So for those of you who don't know what InJOY is, it's a day program for adults with developmental disabilities.  There are two sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.  Each session with 30 of our members ( adults with disabilities).  And for each session we have Life Coaches who are paired with 3 members each.  Each coach has a co-coach and their 3 members as well.  So every co group has 6 members and 2 coaches.  

Every week Monday throughFriday each co-group goes on outings 3 days a week.  One of those days being to the grocery store, the beach, Downtown Disney, various malls, and all other fun places around the Bellflower area.  The other two days are spent inside doing cooking class once a week, art, music, and computer activities.  

So right now a year and a half later I'm working as a full time Utility Coach (UC).  As a full time UC I have the privilege of seeing both sides of InJOY.  I get to work with all of our members, both morning and afternoon, and I get to do behind the scenes office jobs and random tasks.  

But before that I was a part time life coach with my own 3 members.  On every single outing, we get looks from people, it never fails.  That was something that made me really uncomfortable at first, but have grown to get used to it.  I've seen parents pull their kids closer to them as we walk by.  People move away from us when we sit down to have snack.  

But I've also had good experiences.  People have come up to me and thanked me for the work I do.  People have asked if they can help when one of my members is having a behavior.  Or when we purchase something at the store and the cashier is really friendly and talks with our members.  

But unfortunately I've experienced the bad way more than I've experienced the good.  So in that, one of the greatest lessons I've learned with my time at InJOY is that this community are people too.  Just like you and me.  Because I didn't view them as people before.  When I first started working at InJOY that wasn't how I saw them.

People ask me why I work at InJOY, or why have I stayed as long as I have, or that I should be paid more for all the stuff I have to deal with.  Because I do have to deal with a lot at work.  I've been punched, slapped, pinched, bruised, spat at, pushed, choked, verbally threatened, cussed at, pee'd on, pooped on, had clothes soiled with feces thrown at me. 

I've chased someone half a mile down the road eloping from our building. I've been sent to the clinic trying to stop a 6'1" 400 plus pound man from running into the street and messed up one of the muscles in my ribs. I see members hurt themselves in front of me by slapping themselves, full force, all over their body, biting themselves on the arms or legs and taking chunks of skin off or re-opening scabs because that's how they express themselves when they're mad.  If not daily at least once a week.  

I am in the restroom or changing room for at least an hour out of the day helping our members who need that support.  And I still work here why?!  Because of my growing passion and love for this community that is MISUNDERSTOOD.  Working here for as long as I have I've been fortunate enough to see members who have progressed so much in my time being there.  

For them being able to write their name for the first time, or to wash their hands, or to tolerate being in a group with other members around them when they hated being around other people, or just them tolerating being at InJOY.  It's not for my own personal growth but theirs and it's definitely not about the money.

So you've heard all of my stories and experiences and I wanted to finish by encouraging you guys to continue loving people from all walks of life.  And specifically with people with developmental disabilities we could now start by just being more aware of them.  There are a lot of group homes in a lot of neighborhoods that you and I live in.  I've been to a few group homes and it looks like a normal house on the outside but it's a completely different environment on the inside.  

So maybe being active in finding out if there are any around you or visiting InJOY and see what a day program actually looks like.  Or just saying hi to them in the community.  Members love meeting new people.  

But even if you feel like you aren't ready for that, just simply changing your mindset on this community, and seeing them as human beings.  Not having pity on them or feeling sorry for them, but seeing them as fighters is the most powerful thing you can offer them.  
Becca DeFiesta speaking about
her work at Injoy.
Tristan Flores conveys his
passion for the special needs community.

(To listen to the entire talk by Susan, Becca, and Tristan you can click here.) 

Below is a moving video by Gungor. The song "Light" was written when they discovered their second child was born with Down Syndrome. Her name is Lucette which means light.