Another day in the office

The organization I work for serves people with developmental conditions like autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and so on. We aspire to “serve” people rather than to “help” or to “fix” them.

Now this distinction is very important. As the physician and author Rachel Naomi Remen puts it, “serving ... is mutual. There is no debt. I am as served as the person I am serving. When I help I have a feeling of satisfaction. When I serve I have a feeling of gratitude.” I feel an extraordinary gratitude to the children and adults we serve at Northwest Center. For by allowing me an opportunity to serve them, they pay me back richly and with compound interest.

For example, last summer we hosted a group of Japanese graduate students who are interested in our unique hybrid model that uses business to deliver human services. As we entered the shop floor in our manufacturing facility Vicki, an employee with a significant developmental condition, caught my eye and motioned me over to her workstation. “I made those binders” Vicki told me, brimming with pride. “I made those binders — myself, all of them” she said again as I admired her work, welling up with emotion.

It made me think of a conversation I had just had with one of our vice presidents who had motioned me over to tell me, brimming with pride, “I made the deal – we got the business.” What a gift. From both of them – sharing their accomplishment, sharing their contribution, sharing their sense of belonging.

Meanwhile, while my colleague Mike dazzled the Japanese graduate students with his explanation of lean manufacturing and assistive technologies Tim, another of our expert binder assemblers who like Vicki also has a significant developmental condition, left his workstation and came over to greet Mike in his usual effusive way. “Hey Mike, whazzup?” Tim beamed at Mike as they went through their daily ritual of high fives, hippy handshake, elbow taps, chest bumps, and jive talk.

The Japanese graduate students looked on, astonished, some of them taking notes. Then Tim noticed the students, stood up very erect and proper, put his hands together under his chin, and bowed deeply in exquisite culturally appropriate politeness. The Japanese students went hysterical, they loved it. After bowing deeply in return, they queued up to introduce themselves to Tim and to receive high fives, hippy handshake, elbow taps, chest bumps, and jive talk.

Another day at the office, another day that fills me with gratitude – people of all abilities, sharing, engaging, serving each other.

Anyone who has visited our early learning center in Seattle knows what I’m talking about. There you have children engaging each other, teaching each other, being with each other – children of all abilities, together. The great children’s activist Marian Wright Edelman says, “God did not make two classes of children and will hold us accountable for every one of them.” At Northwest Center’s early learning center there is only one teaching method, only one lesson plan. Children of all abilities share the same classroom, the same expectations, the same hopes and dreams. The results are amazing.

Consider the story of a boy named Gert who began attending Northwest Center Kids about two years ago. Gert’s learning delays and behavioral challenges had made him unwelcome at other preschools. But our team at Northwest Center Kids has never met a child who is not welcome in our program, and Gert was no exception. There were challenges aplenty, but Gert learned – from his teachers, from the other children, from the therapists who work right in the classroom and on the playground with Gert. And Gert began to blossom.

Earlier this year, one of Gert’s teachers was giving his students their daily dose of “positive reinforcement.” He praised one child in particular for being so gentle and mindful of the needs of another child that day. “Where did you learn to be such a good friend?” he asked her. She answered cheerfully, “I learned how to be friends from Gert.”

Another day at the office, another day that fills me with the gratitude of service. “I made those binders – all of them, myself.” “Hey Mike – whazzup?” “I learned how to be friends from Gert.”

As we begin another New Year I invite you to sample the rich human rewards that accrue from service to others and from including people of all abilities in our schools and workplaces. I promise you will be glad you did.

Tom Everill is the President & CEO of Northwest Center. Contact him at inside@nwcenter.org.

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