Persons with I/DD Give Back by Volunteering

Persons with I/DD Give Back by Volunteering

Inclusive Volunteerism: Giving Back – “Emphasize Abilities”

When it comes to volunteering, we all have our individual skill sets, interests, and passions. Though some people talk in terms of deficit, or judge and compare others, why not choose inclusivity instead? Today, I would like to address misconceptions about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). Get ready for some beautiful success stories about community residents with I/DD volunteering. 

How should we view I/DD and volunteering?

We all have things we do well without needing help. In addition, there are things we need help with. Our unique human traits combine into the whole picture of who we are. Regarding those volunteers with I/DD, “They are humans – just like you and me. Disability is just a part of who they are,” says Jennifer Pfaltzgraff, Executive Director of The Arc of the Triangle. The Arc serves all ages (children, teens, adults) and all diagnoses of I/DD with multiple programs. 

Like any individual, we accept that person and recognize a condition they have (e.g., a bad hip). That bad hip may hinder some things, but it is not who that person is. We offer accommodations and tasks that a specific person can do. We should view those with I/DD the same way. 

“Those with I/DD are just as fun and hard-working, sometimes even harder working than those without disabilities,” says Jennifer.

In work or volunteering, people with I/DD often willingly and conscientiously take on tasks that others do not want to do. They take each task seriously. Life enrichment is important to them, just like it is to those without I/DD. Jennifer reminds us not to say hateful things, call names, or assume that people with I/DD are not capable. 

Supported Retirement

I also spent some time speaking with Michelle Foy, Community Programs Director at The Arc of the Triangle. Their “Supported Retirement” program has multiple goals, one of which is expanding options for inclusive community participation. 

“Supported Retirement is a unique therapeutic community service designed to enhance the quality of life of older adults (age 50+) with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) by assisting them as they move from work to self-selected retirement activities.” 

Some participants are independent while others need support from a Supported Retirement Coach. If a participant shows a specific interest, Michelle’s job is to help match that person to a good opportunity. She notes that these volunteers get no special treatment. They must follow the rules just like others. They should be on time and dress appropriately, for instance. Organizations that work with these special volunteers recognize and know them. These volunteers with I/DD make natural connections and are rewarded with new friends through their community involvement experiences. They love giving back and feel a sense of pride that they have done a great job. This really helps their self-esteem.

Michelle reminds us, “Anybody with the right support can succeed in life.” She used the example, “Does anyone need a tutor to make their grades in school better?” 

Folks with I/DD are actively volunteering in the community.

Participants of The Arc’s “Supported Retirement” program can be seen all around town volunteering at places like The Food Bank, Meals on Wheels, Hayes Barton United Methodist Church, and The Flower Shuttle. 

The Supported Retirement Program volunteers have been awarded The Volunteer of the Year at the Food Bank of Central & Eastern NC at least 4 times so far.

Tommy, Flower Shuttle volunteer with I/DD

Story of Impact from Persons with I/DD

Supported Retirement participant Tommy Smith is legally blind. Michelle thinks it is funny when Tommy jokes around, telling her that her car windows are dirty. Tommy loves bright colors and smells, so The Flower Shuttle seemed like a great volunteer opportunity for him. He was the first of their program to volunteer at The Flower Shuttle (starting in 2008). Tommy has continued through the years. Due to his legal blindness, he pinches off flower stems and breaks branches with his hands instead of using shears. Being so excited about this opportunity led Tommy to brag and talk constantly. That made the other participants jealous. As a result, there are now 8 participants volunteering at The Flower Shuttle! 

Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

The North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities (NCCDD) shared some links to further information (listed at the end of this article). July 2020 was the 30th anniversary of the American Disabilities Act. Talley Wells, executive director, introduced himself and praised team-members: 

“I came to North Carolina at the start of 2020 to become the Executive Director of the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities. I had no idea I would be starting at the same time as a pandemic, and I could not have done my work this year without the leadership and varied talents of our Council members with intellectual and other developmental disabilities (I/DD). They have led listening sessions we held virtually across the state, they were critical partners and speakers in a statewide Americans with Disabilities Act celebration, they championed get out the vote efforts in preparation for the election, and they have led critical discussions we have had on how to respond to COVID-19. I am also deeply impressed with these Council members with I/DD in what they are doing outside of the Council. 

Tammy Watson, Flower Shuttle Volunteer with I/DD
Tammy Watson, another Flower Shuttle volunteer

“These individuals include Bryan Dooley, who is currently the chair of the Board at Disability Rights North Carolina (the state’s federally funded protection and advocacy organization), Brendon Hildreth who leads a campaign to get everyone to adopt the new accessibility icon, Cheryl Powell who leads the North Carolina Empowerment Network (a statewide self-advocacy organization), and Kay McMillan [a former Activate Good intern!] who is a critical voice for youth with disabilities.”

Philip C. Woodward, Systems Change Manager at NCCDD specifically highlighted some special volunteer success stories on video.

Stories of Impact from Persons with I/DD

  • Selena has volunteered at the Western North Carolina Nature Center weekly over a period of several years. She chops up vegetables and fruits to feed Becca the Deer at the center. Selena lives on her own, manages her own chores, and does an incredibly good job volunteering. She appreciates the supportive services received that help her live more independently now. In her story, she offers encouragement to others with disabilities, “if I can do this, I know they can do it.”
  • Richard enjoys volunteering at Ms. Jellan’s horse farm. His tasks include moving hay bales and feeding horses. Services help him function in his home, and he has done very well with his volunteering tasks with a supportive assistant. Richard seeks additional volunteer opportunities and ways to help others. He has gained skills and responsibility from these activities, loves being “his own boss” and living on his own. 
  • Matt has been volunteering at ABCCM, a nonprofit organization addressing poverty, hunger, homelessness, and access to health care for the under-served in Buncombe County NC. His duties include stocking, and some food-preparation during the organization’s meal services. He works with a support person who found him this great opportunity through understanding Matt’s need to be social. 
  • Sam is a young man with Downs Syndrome. In this video, he describes himself and his job as a stocker at Pet Supplies Plus in Raleigh, NC. To help him achieve his goals, he has assistance from a support worker from The Arc of the Triangle. One of his goals was to live independently, which he now does. Now he wants to give back more to the community.

What ways can people with I/DD volunteer?

Mr. Wells quoted that people with I/DD serve on the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities. The Arc of the Triangle also has an adult with I/DD serving on their board of directors, and they employ a few others. 

The stories shared in this article offer some suggestions. However, just like anyone without I/DD, volunteering is based on a combination of interests and abilities. There is no “one size fits all” approach. 

Examples not previously mentioned include:

  • Meals on Wheels: Sorting/packing, loading cars, delivery assistance walking food up to the doors of recipients/knocking, cleaning coolers 
  • Food Bank: Tying knots in potato sacks, adding labels to egg cartons (see Jimmy Stockley pictured on task below)
  • Places of Faith or Community Centers: Straighten pews/chairs or tables, add pencils to holders, place books & other materials
  • Dog and Cat shelters: Feed, play with animals, cuddle them

If a community member has a volunteer need and is looking for dedicated volunteers to help, Michelle Foy of The Arc of the Triangle could present the idea to her program participants.

Jimmy is a volunteer with I/DD

Note about persons with I/DD volunteering during the pandemic:

During our current Covid19 pandemic, many of the folks with I/DD, being medically fragile, are not participating as in-person volunteers. Instead, they are taking part in physical activities, virtual events/classes like cooking, art, and music. Remote/virtual volunteering has not been explored as an option yet.

The Arc of the Triangle suggests that any organization seeking volunteers should look at the person that comes in the door. “We don’t want to bring undue attention to their disability. We want to bring attention to them as a person,” says Michelle Foy. “Everyone wants to be treated with dignity, kindness, and respect. We all need some type of support in life to succeed. We all have our gifts and talents. Once you tap into that, in conjunction with the right support, the sky is the limit.”

“At the end of the day we are all human…”

Credits and Resources:
More from NCCDD: 

If you’re interested in I/DD and volunteering, check out Activate Good’s opportunities HERE!

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