Rhonda's Hand: The Beginning of My Journey
I was twelve years old when I was introduced to my first person who had developmental disabilities. My step-mother worked for an agency that supported people who had different severities of development disabilities. I was able to go with her to work for the first time. This was a day that changed my life and decided my fate. (Just a note from me: the term mental retardation is a more commonly used term for those that have developmental and intellectual disabilities, however, I personally do not use this term, so you will never find it in any of my writing.)
Her name was Rhonda. She looked about 40 years old, however I later learned that she was 67. She had hair the color of coal, that was cut short. She was on the taller side, probably about 5'9”. She was also on the heavier side, but the thing that stuck out to me, was the fact that she had no teeth. I later learned that when she lived in an institution, all of her teeth were removed, as was a common practice, to prevent her from biting others.
My step mom introduced us. I offered my hand, she didn't respond. I put my hand back to my side and looked at my mother. She smiled and continued to tell me about Rhonda and the things that she enjoys to do. Rhonda was able to speak, but most of the time it came out in jumble that was not understandable. She did answer simple questions. From that moment on, a spark was ignited within me.
I met several more people that day, however Rhonda stuck with me all night long. The next morning, before school, I asked my step-mother some questions about Rhonda. I found out that Rhonda had a younger brother, John, who I also met, and that they were severely abused by their father until their removal from their home. Their mother had committed suicided when John was three and it was found that he and his sister suffered from the same disabilities. Because of their mental state, they were placed in institutions, until the early 1980's.
I went to school that day still thinking about Rhonda and what her life must have been like growing up. How it must have been so different than my own. It was very hard for a twelve year old to wrap their head around. I realized that I lived in a very small part of the world, and that there were more people on this planet than just me. I went home that day, still thinking about Rhonda.
Summer vacation was just around the corner. Later that night, I asked my step- mom if I could go to work with her during my summer vacation. I wanted to go to help out and be a part of something that was very special. She told me that she would check with her boss to see if something could be worked out. I saw the glint of happiness in her eyes when I asked.
The next night, she told me that her boss said I could volunteer as much as I wanted to during the summer. She also told me that when I was old enough, I could work there in the summer as a paid employee. I became really excited and could not wait for summer vacation. The last few weeks of school seemed to drag on and on.
That summer was a whirlwind of activity for me. Monday thru Friday, from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon, I volunteered at this place. The agency was given work by outside sources, and the individuals there would do it for a rate per piece. There was a room within the building where the more severe individuals spent their days. This is where I worked.
Rhonda was able to work for a piece rate, but there were times when she needed to be in the room where I worked because she needed a break. During the times when she would be with me, I would sit with her. I would tell her about my life and what school was like. She never responded, and I didn't know if she understood, but she would look at me. She liked to show off her work. She was very proud of her work.
Summer after summer I would go back to work with Rhonda and the others. When I turned sixteen, I was able to earn money for being there. I did this until I graduated high school. During the time that I was in school, I could not wait to be working again. Summers could not come fast enough.
The day that I had to say good-bye to Rhonda and the others, was one of the hardest days of my life. Before I left that day, I offered Rhonda my hand, she took it. I smiled. What a moment that was for me. Maybe she was listening to me all of these years and maybe she was going to miss me as much as I was going to miss her.
Working with Rhonda for all of those years really taught me somethings about myself. In fact, the experiences that I had while I was there turned me into I am today. If it weren't for that place and those people, I can't say that I would be the same person. I found my niche. I was meant to do this.
Not everyone is created equally. This life really wasn't fair sometimes. However, I did not feel sorry for her or the others. Instead, I admired their strength to over come some very challenging obstacles that were put in their way. If only everyone had that kind of courage. Those that are affected with developmental and intellectual disabilities often see life differently than you or I. They have much to teach us if we are able, willing, and ready to be taught. I learned that from Rhonda's hand.
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