December 10, 2013
I once had a boss commend me for being the most calm, clear-headed, patient, employee that she had ever had.
So I totally bragged to all of my friends about it and was met with the same reaction, which was a facial expression that seemed to translate into something along the lines of “WTF? Is your boss smoking crack?”
And I totally get that.
Because I am not a person who is well-known in my circle of friends for the gift of calm, clear-headed, patience.
I’m kind of known for being a bit opposite of those things.
So why did my boss tell me that? Because I WAS all of those things at work.
At that time I was working at a semi-independent living center where I was a life skills trainer for adults with special needs. My job was to help them learn the skills needed to live on their own. Cooking, cleaning, shopping, hygiene, communication skills, and everything else that is needed to function independently.
Anyone who has worked or lived with someone with special needs knows that there are MANY challenges, and the only way to deal with those challenges is to be calm, clear-headed, and patient. If you respond to any of those challenges with anger or impatience, you will lose. All day long, forever and ever, you will lose. And they will lose too.
And I know that because I grew up with it.
One of the things that many people don’t know about me is that I have an older sister with special needs. It’s not like I hide it or anything. It just doesn’t often come up. I don’t introduce myself by saying “My name is Patti and I have a sister with special needs,” but if a topic comes up that pertains to it, I will mention it then. I have written many blogs in which I talk about our childhood shenanigans, but I haven’t mentioned it in those stories because it didn’t matter to the story. Sometimes it will come up and when I mention it the other person will say “Oh! I didn’t know you had a sister with special needs! Why didn’t you tell me?’ And I’m like “Well, I guess you never asked.” It’s not something I go around thinking about all of the time. It just is what it is.
She was nearly four when I was born and my parents were in full-throttle parenting mode with her, so I came into the world like an independent little old lady who was set in her ways. Just the other day my mom said to me “Even as a baby, you just took care of yourself. You didn’t want anyone bugging you or doing anything for you. I don’t know if that’s just how you were meant to be or if you knew that’s what we needed you to be.” And I don’t know either. I just know that that’s who I was. And that was good, because my parents were busy with my sister. She could often be be a real challenge to deal with, and that challenge was all I ever knew, which actually meant that to me, it really wasn’t a challenge at all. It was just normal.
She needed people to be calm, so I was calm. She needed people to be clear-headed, so I was clear-headed. She needed people to be patient, so I was patient.
And my parents needed an independent little kid who could take care of herself, so I was independent and I took care of myself.
Because of my sister I learned patience and empathy. I also learned self-confidence because kids (and some grown-ups) can be cruel, and you have to learn to stand up to them and not let it bother you. My sister sometimes got teased, and I sometimes got teased, and you have to learn that those people who are doing the teasing usually have problems that you can’t see. But you also have to learn that sometimes you just have to kick some ass.
And trust me when I say that I DO have a temper. I’m not always calm and nice. I get frustrated and angry with myself and other people if I don’t think they are trying, and if I think they can do better. But I’ve never gotten frustrated with someone who is doing the best that they can with the tools that they have.
When my boss gave me that compliment, it was after a situation where one of our clients came into the office and screamed at me for about 5 minutes, while trashing the whole office. I just calmly sat there and waited for the storm to pass so I could talk to her about why she was so upset. And in the middle of an office full of a huge mess of papers and busted up picture frames, we got to the heart of what had made her feel like tearing things apart. But she NEEDED to tear things apart to get there because she didn’t really have an easier route.
Sometimes people with special needs can be like children in that they don’t have the tools to deal with their emotions in the way that other people might. So you shouldn’t get mad at them the way that you might get mad at someone else.
My family and friends have seen me rip people a new one and bluntly tell them that they are being idiots or acting like dicks. But they’ve also seen me talk my sister down from big tantrums and freak-outs.
I am thankful to my sister for that bit of selective calm, clear-headed, patience. It has allowed me to work with some amazing special needs adults and children that I will never forget. Growing up with her has made me a more caring person than I might have been had I not grown up with her. And since she really didn’t put up with any crap and once gave a boy a bloody nose after he called me a name, she also taught me to kick ass. So I’m pretty thankful for that too.
Another thing I learned from my sister and from working with other special needs individuals, is that they want to be belong like everyone else. They want to be accepted like everyone else. They want to work like everyone else.
My sister is the reason that I am doing a fundraiser this month with a company called Paper Clouds Apparel.
Paper Clouds Apparel takes artwork drawn by people with special needs and puts it onto shirts, totes, and hats, and sells these items to raise funds for special needs causes. Not only that, but they hire individuals with special needs to package all of the items for shipping, which gives them endless confidence and a feeling of purpose.
I wanted the proceeds of this 2-week fundraiser to go to Team Jeremy (who I have raised funds for before) to help pay off Jeremy’s bills from his battle with osteocarcoma.
Then something happened.
Jeremy was told that his friend Nick (a 14 year-old boy who he met while going through chemo for the same cancer), just found out that his cancer came back and spread to his lungs. His mom had to quit her job to take care of him, and with 2 other kids in the house, the family is having financial difficulty. So Jeremy asked us if the fundraiser could instead go to Nick.
I can’t tell you what I felt when I got this request. Sometimes the selflessness of people is so amazing that I have no words. Last year when I started raising funds for Jeremy, I knew that he was a special boy, and this gesture proves it. He’s nothing short of inspiring.
These are the designs that you can buy for the nest 2 weeks at Paper Clouds:
Go over to Paper Clouds and join the cause to help Nick’s family, as well as the artists and employees with special needs who are part of every Paper Clouds project.
And please, when you see someone with special needs, just remember that they are someone’s child, brother, sister, and take a moment to show some kindness. You have no idea how much that helps. And if you don’t, I just might kick your ass. Seriously. My sister taught me that.