As I move towards retirement and see more of the past than future, it seems…
Dear MVC SMASE volunteer,
Throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, I had the privilege to care for adults living with a wide range of developmental disabilities at St. Michael’s Association for Special Education (SMASE), located in Window Rock, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation Native American Reservation. For almost 50 years, SMASE, a not-for-profit school, has provided educational services to the developmentally disabled children and adults of the reservation, including therapy and daily living skills. I served the adults as a supervisor and activities planner in the Day Treatment and Training for Adults program; I addressed the sensory and independent-living-skills needs of the consumers. I hope, through my letter, that I may instill in you humble confidence and peace of mind and heart as you prepare yourself for a beautiful, but challenging, year of service at SMASE.
Before you arrive at the Albuquerque airport, you will most likely be bombarded by advice, opinions, and worst of all, admonitions. Allow me to reorient your spinning head and provide frank yet honest perspective. First, anyone who has not spent more than 6 months on a reservation in community with the Diné (Navajo) people does not have a complex understanding of what you will experience. Take everything said with a grain of salt; don’t dismiss anyone if they are trying to help you, but just understand that people, excited at the idea of your prospective cultural experience, will be eager to dump onto you the entirety of their knowledge of Native American society and culture, regardless of its limits and stereotypes. They have good intentions; however, preconceived notions will only blind you and close you off to fully understanding what you are seeing and hearing during your year of service. Secondly, previous volunteers, like me, will try to cram a years-worth of acquired knowledge, lessons, and experiences into a brief encounter, effectively overwhelming you. We have already gone through the steps of growth: from knowing nothing on our first day, to unintentionally offending Natives at serious ceremonies, to learning from those mistakes, to earning trust and respect, to making significant relationships with Diné, to viewing SMASE as home and being viewed as a son or daughter of it too. We will be proud of our accomplishments as well as the mistakes and adversities we overcame. We will make you second-guess your commitment with stories of our most difficult challenges, which even we did not know we could overcome until we faced them in community. We will make you wary of your fellow MVC volunteers with stories of the worst days within our community. Furthermore, we will want so much to protect you from the heartache we felt learning from our mistakes, that we will fail to see the importance of you simply preparing yourself to learn from your own. Clear your mind of all of that overwhelming intimidation; no one can prepare you for the unique experience you will have. However, you can mentally prepare yourself to be patient, adaptive, and ready to soak up all of the knowledge of those around you.
I wish I had the strength to leave you with “Listen patiently and be prepared to learn from your mistakes,” the only advice needed for a successful year of service; however, I am flawed and cannot refrain from elaborating on my personal philosophies. I do not believe “Everything happens for a reason.” As much as I cherish and promote positive thinking, I cannot rationalize that idea in the face of all of the suffering I have seen on and off of the reservation. Nevertheless, a wise woman, who supported me through my entire year with her realistic optimism, perfectly articulated the delicate balance between faith and clarity of perspective: “Nothing goes to waste.” Remember this truth, “Nothing goes to waste,” as you face challenges during your year of service and beyond. Every mistake and every conversation is littered with lessons and opportunities to improve us to the best versions of ourselves that we can be. In the story of my life, “Nothing goes to waste” best describes the chapter of how I ended up in MVC and at SMASE.
I applied late for my service year, only opening myself to the opportunity when I was not admitted into medical school after my first attempt. I had no idea what I would do, see, experience, or feel. I was a pre-medical student with zero knowledge of developmental disability, supervising, teaching, Diné culture, or the reservation. I got on the plane figuratively blind to the experiences to come, drove into Window Rock on Sunday night, and walked to my first day of work only 7 hours later. Among a culture, a population of special-needs adults, and an area of the country I had never before experienced, I was nervous that I would not be able to meet the needs of SMASE. I later found out that just being present to those you serve is enough; giving 100% every day changes lives, even if that translates to 100% of your exhausted 60% maximum that day. Do not become discouraged. Many of those you will serve simply need to know that they are not alone and someone cares about them. Show them you care. Be present to them physically, mentally, and emotionally. On one hand, this presence may mean making yourself vulnerable for the first time in your life. On the other hand, you will create a dependable family of coworkers and MVC volunteers around you who all advocate for the same common goal: sharing love with those at SMASE. This experience will change you. Be open to the change.
In my first month, I had a paradigm shift in how I think and how I serve others. My change in ideals came from the Diné people’s unique focus on processes in favor of the actual goals; a successful activity depends on whether the journey positively improved the person’s character and spirit, regardless of whether or not the goal was met. This philosophy drastically contradicted my Anglo goal-oriented worldview. Once I observed and understood this Diné ideal, I became better equipped to run the program. I still planned activities that targeted each consumer’s goals; however, once the activity began, I shifted my focus from goal-oriented event planning to a process-focused teaching. This hybrid approach to adult day-treatment allowed me to more fully care for people, no longer blinded by an obsession to meet goals (a very eastern U.S. way of thinking). This lesson, among others, shaped me into a more patient and empathetic person.
I was accepted into medical school during my service year. Medicine, one form of service, involves more than just technical skill and knowledge of biology; a doctor must possess a kind and empathetic bedside manner. I am confident that my time at SMASE taught me the necessary skills to become an effective doctor. This school has some of the most loving and lovable people tucked away up a dirt road half a mile from the nearest paved street labeled on Google Maps. If you open yourself to them, they will change you, and you will carry their love with you wherever you serve next.
That is my story. You will write a different one. You may meet new consumers, have different coworkers, or even pursue a different career after your year of service. Regardless of the changes in minor details, your experience will still be life-giving, character-forming, challenging, spiritual, beautiful, and full of love. It will be full of a sense of love you may not have ever felt. Whether you understand your feelings well or are emotionally rigid like me, you will feel exactly what I have said. This is a year where you will physically serve SMASE, but they will spiritually serve you. Take care of those at SMASE. They are beautiful people and deserve so much from a world that gives them so little. You are a gift to them, and one day, you will realize what a gift they are to you. Be present; be open; and share love.
Kyle Rodgers: St. Michaels Association for Special Education, Arizona
Volunteer Supervisor: Day Treatment and Training for Adults