For our ECS 200 class we are asked to complete 20 hours of Community-Based Service Learning volunteer experience. At first I was not sure how I felt about a mandatory volunteer experience from a pre-selected group of possible community partners. I was already trying to balance two jobs, full-time classes and a family. I was not sure how I was going to fit in another responsibility… As I applied for volunteer positions I was trying to figure out what kind of an experience I would most benefit from. I chose Astonished! as my first choice and I think I was lucky in getting paired with the organization.
To start with I met Astonished!’s Executive Director Bonnie Cummings-Vickaryous and Program Coordinator Katherine Taylor. The meeting was fairly informal as we mostly just used it as a chance to meet each other and make sure the program would be a good fit for me and that I would work well within the intentions of the program. Bonnie and Katherine are both incredibly committed to the mission of Astonished! and its core members. We talked about how they work with their members and the concept of PATH (Planning Alternative Future with Hope) that they use to create a way to help their members identify and reach their goals and dreams. Both Bonnie and Katherine were very willing to make the CBSL experience work for both Astonished! and myself.
Technically known as the The Big Sky Centre for Learning and Being Astonished!, Astonished! is “a not-for-profit organization incorporated in Saskatchewan in 2008 and was registered as a Canadian charity in 2011. Astonished! works in inclusive community to address barriers facing young adults with complex physical disAbilities (core members) by creating opportunities for teaching and learning, social, recreational and cultural engagement, and for employment and housing” (beingastonished.com). In my experience with Astonished! I hope to interact and participate in many areas of the programming that they offer. The majority of my time will be in work with Astonished! Teaching and Learning Centre (A!TLC) but I will also attend a couple of Astonished! Social Club events and Astonished! Leadership Team events and a PATH interview.
For my first volunteer experience I met the members of A!TLC for coffee at Henderson’s on the U of R campus. At first I was very nervous as I didn’t know exactly what to expect. My meeting with Bonnie and Katherine had gone well but meeting Astonished!’s core members was still an unknown experience. Bonnie and Katherine had mentioned a bit about the core members and their levels of communication skills. I went to coffee not sure what the experience I was going to have would be like. I left coffee so excited to be volunteering with Astonished!. My first experience with one of the core members was an hour long conversation with Landon. The needs of the core members are very diverse and, as I mentioned, so are their abilities to communicate. Some members are non-verbal but all have some means of communication. Landon is certainly not “non-verbal”.
Landon pulled up and immediately introduced himself. He started to talk to me about what Astonished! means to him. Then we had a great conversation about his experiences in school. Landon was placed in a FIAP (Functional Integrated Academic Program) classroom and arguably misdiagnosed as having a cognitive disability as well as a physical disability. This meant that Landon’s high school and middle school experience was very difficult for him. Part of Landon’s PATH is becoming a diploma seeking student. Landon definitely has some cognitive disabilities but he was diagnosed as having a low IQ. Landon however argued that with proper supports he is capable of learning and pursuing a degree in psychology. He has proven his Low IQ score wrong. Landon finished Psychology 100 last year with a better mark than I finished with in my first year of University. Landon and I talked a lot about how his experience in high school was so affected by this diagnosis. We touched on how at that young of an age it is difficult to be your own advocate– whether you are dealing with special needs or are a mainstream student. This was such an eye-opener for me as a future educator. It seems so easy to lump students together and treat groups as though what is good for one is good for all. I think as an educator it is important to be able to recognize what each student needs and identify what it is you can do to help them attain their goals. Again this applies to both students with and without complex needs or disAbilities. When we finished our conversation Landon said “do you have any other questions about Astonished!?” and I said “No”. Then Landon said “Ok- well make sure you let Katherine know I did a good job she told me to make sure you felt welcomed and entertained…”
This was such an eye opening experience for me. I went in worried about how I could make the core members feel comfortable around me and at the same time they were doing their best to to make me feel comfortable with Astonished!. I can’t wait to get more comfortable with the core members and learn about each one of them. I know they all won’t be as forward as Landon but I appreciate him opening the door for me. I can’t wait to gain a better understanding of what it is like to be a young adult with complex physical needs. I think that this understanding will help me as a think about creating an inclusive classroom in the future. How do I use things like Universal Design for Education to create a space to make sure that stories like Landon’s don’t happen with students in my classroom? I think that it is important to consider these concepts as I am looking at shaping what type of an educator I want to become. As we look at a class on the construction of the learner, student and school it is important to acknowledge and prepare for the diversity of students in our classroom and how we address learners and school to prepare all students for the future. I can’t wait to work more with Astonished! and find out more about how I can incorporate their views and ways of working with complex physical disabilities into my own teacher toolbox.