Shelly Zabukovic is a supporter of a community center that serves people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. She remembers when two college students came to the center for a writing assignment for a class — they were instructed to interview one of the clients there.
Shelly helped them connect with a client, and then was surprised to learn that the students kept in touch with the person well beyond the assignment. “They ended up coming to see him for Christmas every year and his birthday,” she said. “They’ve graduated, but they still send him cards seven years later.”
There are 6.5 million people in the U.S. living with an intellectual disability, and while many of us might see their condition as a burden, each is a unique individual with their own personalities and dreams and hopes — and they have gifts to share with us. Volunteering to spend time with them and share our friendship can be a mutually enriching experience.
Shelly grew up with two siblings with developmental disabilities. “It was always a part of my life,” she said, adding that disability never phased her and was simply part of her family. So when she was in college, she sought out opportunities to volunteer with families who experienced similar dynamics.
She joined a club for students to volunteer with families who had a disabled child. Volunteers were paired with a child who had a sibling with a disability. Often, the energy and attention in a family ends up revolving around a child with a disability, so the mission of this club was to focus on their siblings, who face their own unique challenges, such as desiring more time with their parents. This club was a way to support them and give them space to discuss those struggles.
Shelly also connected with this community center serving people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. The center would organize gatherings for their clients and volunteers to socialize together — volunteers even had the opportunity to develop a one-to-one “buddy” relationship with a specific client if they wished.
Getting to know adults with disabilities and looking into ways to advocate for them or build relationships with them can present some uncertainties. You might feel uncomfortable or awkward, Shelly said. You might fear that you won’t know what to say, or how to react the right way.
Shelly tells volunteers simply to come with an open heart and a good attitude. “You are meeting another person just like any other day in your life — just be yourself. They’re willing to accept you without judgment.
“And it’s probably easier than meeting some others!” she said. “Sometimes volunteers keep a journal to realize what happened and how they managed a situation.”
What can a first-time volunteer expect at a center for people with developmental disabilities? “To be welcomed with genuine love. They just want to be a friend,” Shelly said. “Remember this is their home and you are a visitor. You’re not here to help them or serve them, but to be with them as a presence. Many of them are nonverbal, or blind, or don’t have hearing, but you can still be with them and be their friend and be interactive.”
Figuring out how to do that might take time, and it takes courage to give it a try, just as it does with starting anything new. Shelly reminds newcomers that sometimes the best relationships don’t require spoken words and don’t need to accomplish anything. She described volunteering with people with disabilities as a “ministry of presence.”
“Allow yourself to be vulnerable and take the first step,” she said. “This is not about service, but relationship.”
She explained that many of the clients she works with are older and came from an age when people with disabilities were cared for in impersonal institutions. They don’t have family or know what family support is like, and had very rough journeys before coming to the community center. So she involves her own family and children in her work now. When she had a 1-year-old baby, she paired up with a man who didn’t have much contact with family, and now he’s become part of theirs. Shelly describes him as sort of a proud uncle, having seen her children grow up and develop a relationship with them since they were infants.
The relationship benefited her family, too. She explained that she wanted her children to be understanding of all types of people, and she wanted them to ponder questions like: How do we receive and respond to all different types of people? What can each person bring with their different personalities and gifts?
If you’re hoping to volunteer with adults with disabilities, or if you’d like to find a community center in your area where you can share friendship, a little bit of research might help you better prepare for how to engage in those relationships in a respectful and mutual way:
- Special Olympics offers some practical tips for how to approach those with disabilities as people with their own gifts to offer.
- Kayla McKeon is an advocate for people with Down syndrome has some great insights in her blog and podcast.
- The National Down Syndrome society has a number of suggestions for ways to engage and advocate for their community.
- Autism Speaks also has opportunities listed on their website where you can learn more about joining an event to raise money for research, advocating for those with autism, or becoming a partner in a program.
Regardless of which direction you choose, Shelly’s advice is to be vulnerable, be yourself, be open, and simply be with the other person.