No pictures with this post--and I'm changing names as well, for privacy reasons--but great memories we'll keep forever!
The youth from our stake were invited to go to the Arizona Training Center today, to spend time with the people who live there. They are severely disabled individuals, and some have been there since the 1950s when the Center opened. Since half of our family would be going, and the youth leaders had been told that younger family members were welcome, we decided to take the whole family.
After an orientation meeting, everyone headed out on the grounds to gather our Friends from their homes, and bring them to the gathering hall. It worked out that about 2 youth would be with one Friend.
We quickly came to realize that we were experiencing a great opportunity, a true privilege. Rather than blessing these people's lives by being there to help them, they were blessing our lives, simply by allowing us to spend time with them. As the director put it, "Today you will have the opportunity to make celestial friends."
Rob, Spencer, Emmee, Kaybree, Chase, & I were assigned to Marie, a woman probably in her 50's, with Downs Syndrome. She was in a wheelchair, which Spencer pushed from her home to the hall. They had told us that the Friends look forward to "Primary" all week, and it was obvious that Marie knew where we were going. Down the last sidewalk heading toward the building, she started moving her body forward and back, and making noise like a motor, letting us know that we needed to move faster. =) She also had a HUGE smile on her face in anticipation of what was to come.
When we got to the hall, Marie knew just where to go. She sits on the front row of the auditorium chairs, in the yellow section. She maneuvered from her wheelchair to one of the chairs, then proceeded to let Emmee and Kaybree know IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS that they would be sitting on either side of her. (She let them know by yanking their arms and pulling them into the chairs!) We all have to communicate right? =)
Marie is cross-eyed, has a prominent underbite, and doesn't hear well. Her favorite activities are those that involve loud noise, and especially noises that she can feel inside her ear canal. She loved it if we banged on the chairs, clapped loudly right next to her ear (and she favored her left ear), or made loud blowing or growling sounds in her ear. At one point she took my hand and banged my rings against the metal fasteners on the chair. My hand was all red by the time I got it back from her. =) The kids thought it was fun when the volunteers told them that this was their chance to be ROWDY in Primary! For Maggie, the rowdier the better!
One of Marie's first "requests" after we got into the hall was for Emmee to make a loud "UUUUUUUOOOHHHHHHH" sound in her ear. She made her wishes known by making the sound herself, then turning her ear toward Emmee. At first Emmee wasn't sure what to do, but we helped her figure it out and then she complied. As we were all still becoming accustomed to Marie's wishes, this was especially hilarious. Emmee was definitely out of her comfort zone, her eyes glancing all around to see who might be staring at her as she made this funny, LOUD growling/groaning sound! But Marie was THRILLED, and we all knew that was all that mattered. =) Of course by the end we were all doing crazy, loud things for her, without a thought of who was watching or what they thought. We had forgotten about ourselves by then; it was all about Marie.
We had also been told beforehand that Marie doesn't like to have anyone sit next to her. She always wants the chairs on either side of her empty, so she can hit them and make noise. She also doesn't like males, and makes them sit at least two chairs away. But for some reason she changed the rules for us. Even Spencer was allowed to sit by her for a few minutes!
Marie had a cute way of letting people know when she was finished with them. After Spencer had been sitting by her for awhile, she suddenly pushed on his back, then when he stood up she pushed his bum in the direction she wanted him to go. Then she replaced him with Kaybree by pulling on Kaybree's arm and plopping her into the chair. (She also called Lane Bourgeous over and "requested" that he blow and make loud noises in her ear--and then she promptly sent him away when she was finished with him. She's probably the only person who's ever been able to push Lane around!) ;)
Marie wasn't the only CELESTIAL FRIEND we got to make that day. Sally fell in love with Chase--repeatedly. Sally is one of the "old-timers" at the Center. She has "raised" just about everyone else there. She wanders around with her walker, checking on everyone throughout the hall. Each time she would pass by us, she would hurry (as quickly as she could) over to Chase and mumble, "Da baby?" Even though it was hard to understand her, she always wanted to know his age and who he belonged to. One time she said, "Boo!" to him, and he laughed. Then the next time she came around we told him to say, "Boo!" to her. When he did it she thought that was so funny!
One man who was walking around came up to Rob and grabbed his nose--pretty hard. Rob was looking another direction when the man approached him, so it especially caught him off guard. I would have loved to have a picture of that!
Just a few chairs over from us and all our racket was a quieter, calmer woman with long, gray hair. She was probably at least 80 years old, and she quietly held a life-size doll in her arms. We were told by the workers that this woman truly believes she is a mother, and she loves and nurtures her dolls just like a mother nurtures her children. As I watched her hug and rock her doll, I couldn't help thinking of all the mothers in the world who fail to find joy in motherhood, and yet here is this woman who would give anything to be a mother. I am so grateful for the knowledge I have that lets me know that this wonderful woman will have the opportunity, throughout eternity, to put her deepest desires into action, as a true mother. I believe her rewards will be far greater than even the greatest rewards she could have experienced in this life.
There was also a woman who loved to yell out her excitement. She was so, so happy--about everything! And she called quite a few people "Martha." She would spot someone across the hall and rush over to them, screaming her excitement as she went, and hug them. Often her next phrase would be, "What happened?!?" as if they had not visited in awhile--but not in an angry way at all; simply letting them know she missed them (even if it had only been a few minutes since she last saw them). =) Watching her, the thought occurred to me that if "men are that they might have joy," then she is way ahead of the game! I'm sure she has been joyful her entire life, unlike the rest of us who have had to fumble and stumble our way around for awhile before realizing that finding joy is a choice.
The volunteers explained to us that the program is the same every Sunday: Songs are sung in the same order, the residents sit in the same places, etc. Structure is very important, and the residents trust that everything will be just as they expect. The volunteers told us that there are several people there who are completely nonverbal. They can't sing the songs or participate like some of the others can, but they listen and they recognize the familiar songs sung week after week. The last two songs of the program are, "My Heavenly Father Loves Me" and "I Am a Child of God." There are three nonverbal individuals who cry each Sunday as they hear "My Heavenly Father Loves Me," because they know that means Primary is about to end.
I realized again today something I've learned before: That the people we often see as being "disadvantaged" in one way or another are often, in fact, the ones who actually have huge advantages over the rest of us. It's the mentally disabled individuals who are usually carefree and happy about everything; they love everyone; they see each day as an opportunity to find excitement in whatever comes along. The physically disabled often decide early-on that life will be as good as they make it--unlike the rest of us who are constantly distracted by our aims for perfection of one kind or another, repeatedly disappointed that we can't "have it all."
Today was a perfect way to set the tone for this Holiday season. It had nothing to do with present-wrapping, or rushing around to store after store, or the big man in the red suit. It had to do with those things that Christmas is really all about: It had to do with love, joy, and service. I truly pray for the day when Christmas can remain that simple.
2 years ago