We recently asked our staff to begin sharing their accounts of interactions with their clients, and how they have been affected and moved by them. We hope you’ll enjoy these ongoing installments from those special individuals who deliver our much-needed services to our cherished clients. Today’s story comes from a staff member who works in our special needs department…
This coming February will be eight years that I have been working at JFCS. In those eight years I have met hundreds of clients which makes picking just one to share their story a daunting task. So many clients provide us with funny anecdotes and insights that help us gain perspective in our own lives. Working with special needs clients daily reminds me how important it is to let the little things go and be appreciative for what we have in our own lives.
The client who I am going to focus on today is *Darren. He likes to refer to himself as one of the “Founding Fathers” of SAIL (Supports to Achieve Independent Living). When I started with SAIL almost eight years ago Darren was very shy around me and limited his socialization to his best friend Tom. He participated in the Special Olympics sports -basketball and softball. Soon after I started we also added soccer – which he enthusiastically joined. I remember trying to connect with him at different SAIL events and he would drift away from me without talking, appearing distant or anxious. For many months I tried to make Darren comfortable around me. I remember our breakthrough moment was on a ride home from a SAIL event. He was having girlfriend troubles and he was discussing them with his friend Jim. I was invited into the conversation and that was when Darren and I bonded. He realized that he could talk to me as a friend and as a mentor. Darren let his guard down and I saw his real personality come out. The quiet, anxious 25 year old disappeared and the real Darren appeared- one who was silly, funny, and confident.
Darren’s personal story began long before he joined SAIL and was raised in Cherry Hill by two Special Education professionals. He was adopted from an orphanage in Bolivia when he was 18 months old. I remember his Mom, Andrea, telling me what it was like seeing Darren in the orphanage. She said she knew that she could not leave him behind because his little body had no muscle tone. Andrea said she knew if they did not bring Darren back to the US he would have no chance at a quality life. Darren was raised in Cherry Hill along with his adopted sister. Apparently he was very shy and coasted quietly through school. After high school he went to a secondary school in New York- where he started to gain more confidence and came out of his shell.
As I mentioned, when I met Darren he was initially hesitant around me. We took time to build our friendship within the SAIL program. He was very active with our regular SAIL activities but he really excelled at sports. I was assigned to be his job coach too. This is where I really saw Darren’s challenges. When you meet him you sometimes question what type of special needs he really has.
Darren presents as very outgoing, personable, funny, witty and his sense of humor is very appropriate. He is very high-functioning. When I think of him I think of the word “COLORFUL.” He changes hair colors more often than I change nail polish colors. He has hundreds of t-shirts in different designs and colors. He could be a stand-up comedian and his delivery of his one-liners are perfect. He lives in his own apartment with his two dogs, has his own car, and functions independently. He loves wrestling and Disney movies. When Darenn is at a SAIL event or at a Special Olympics game, he loves attention.
However, I remember taking him on a job interview with a printing company. His anxiety was so severe he could not get out of the car. He had sweat through his shirt so badly that it was more wet than dry. I finally convinced him to get out of the car but I didn’t know if he would stop shaking or even be able to talk. I ended up doing most of the talking in the interview. Darren then had to do a little assessment that involved basic math. He was asked to convert a fraction of ¼ into a decimal. He could not do it. This was when I realized how much we all take the little things for granted. His inability to convert a basic fraction and his debilitating frustration and anxiety were crippling. This resulted in his physical inability to speak up for himself. Darren wanted so badly to have the job but he knew he could not handle the math portion required. Although I am no longer his job coach he keeps me updated about his work. He is currently employed at Petsmart- a perfect fit since he is a huge dog lover.
When I think of Darren’s Mom describing the little baby who had no muscle tone- and I now see him running circles around everybody on the basketball court- it fills me with pride that we are able to offer a program that provides our clients a place to shine. In his case, he is a true leader on and off the court. Last year our basketball coach could not make it to the final basketball tournament. Darren helped me and our Special Olympics Coordinator Mike strategize the logistics of the game. Once the season ended Darren approached me about wanting to transition from Special Olympics athlete to coach. I contacted Special Olympics on his behalf and they were thrilled to help. We are in the process of getting him approved to be a coach. He still wants to play this basketball season but he has proven himself to be a true leader on and off the court.
Darren is now almost 32 years old and is still very active with the SAIL program. Over the past eight years with JFCS, Darren has participated in a lot that we have to offer. He went on the first Birthright Israel trip, has designed holiday cards for JFCS, and is a past winner at our Vocational Breakfast. I was with Darren at a SAIL event last Tuesday night and mentioned that I was going to include him in my story today. I asked him if there was anything people should know about him and he said, “I’m pretty awesome and don’t forget a paragraph about how humble I am.”