Adam S

The first time I visited the Stevens Group I could tell that it was a center to help adults suffering from mental illnesses. My first actual contact with any person at the Stevens Group was a schizophrenic man. He didn’t seem to fulfill the stereotypically portrayed schizophrenic, a raving mad-person with a violent predisposition. He was quite sociable, calm, and well mannered completely opposite of the aforementioned view. There were other adults suffering from schizophrenia, plus there were a couple of other mental illnesses I could identify. Chronic clinical depression, and bi-polar disorder were the two other illnesses that were prevalent among the Stevens Group members. With these two mental illnesses there were also stereotypic views that I was aware of. For clinical depression: there is a common stereotype in which the person suffering from the illness is constantly suicidal, and has a morbid outlook on life. None of the members I met suffering from depression had a morbid outlook on life, and certainly did not seem suicidal. The only reason I knew these members were suffering from depression was that the voluntarily told me so. Persons with bi-polar are often viewed as out of control; a common assumption around bi-polar disorder is that people suffering from it will snap at any moment and become incredibly hostile or have multiple personalities and such. Again, much like the members with depression, the members with bi-polar disorder did not fulfill any of the stereotypical views. Additionally, and member that I knew to suffer from bi-polar, told me on a voluntary basis, so I’d like to think I would never have known if I had not been told.

The Stevens Group was an extremely rewarding organization to work with. They faculty and members of the group are very receptive to volunteers, and they are incredibly friendly. Additionally, members are very open with volunteers as far as sharing the events of their lives and talking about their mental illnesses. After a couple of visits, I started to feel very comfortable with the members of the Steven’s Group. It was a great feeling knowing that I would be able to step into the facility and not be ignored because I was a volunteer. Benefits of the agency, as far as the members within the agency experience, seemed to be pretty simple, but incredibly useful. The Stevens Group organizes the facility in a way so that each member has a task of cooking, cleaning, or some other daily action. The group also helps the create a healthy living regimen for the members. For example, wake up then brush your teeth, get dressed, eat some breakfast, etc. things that I have taken for granted, but actually help in the everyday functioning of the members. Overall, I believe the Stevens Group helps structure the members’ lives so that when they do enter the working force, it will not come as a complete system shock to them.

To me, the members of the Stevens Group really didn’t need a whole lot of help from the volunteers. If I were in their shoes, however, I would really appreciate volunteers from the college coming in to become informed of what its really like to deal with having a mental illness. Many of the members hang out at the ‘square’ in front of the court house, I have heard from Dickinson Students that “the people at the square are crazy” in a derogatory tone. On the flipside, however, the members have describes the students at Dickinson as mean and ignorant. I think the biggest benefit the members of the Stevens group received from having the Dickinson volunteers come to visit, was a clearer look into how some students are not ignorant, but willing to learn. The company we gave to some of the members could also have impacted them in a positive way, just by having simple contact with people from outside the group.

As mentioned before, the members often have to face negative stereotypes by ‘normative’ society. In addition to the stereotypes they are labeled with, many times society can view them as mentally challenged, and therefore dis-functioning humans. An argument can be made that society often views adults suffering from mental illness as sub-human. The mentality that follows this could be, “If your not like me your not-normal,” otherwise known as “retarded.” Despite all the negative feedback the members get from society they are still trying to integrate themselves into it. This is admirable, but at the same time it is saddening. Local communities should welcome people experiencing mental illness into the working force, and work with them to make working life a good experience. Yet, as it is now, local communities tend to expect everyone to accommodate the community ‘norm,’ which isn’t without its problems.

Volunteering at the Stevens Group, in some ways, has helped me understand the material we have been covering in class. But on the whole, I feel as if the experiences I have at the Stevens Center are separate from those I have in the classroom. There are times when I think of how the ‘normate,’ introduced in Extraordinary Bodies, affects the members of the group. Moreover, how many of the students from Dickinson have their own view of what ‘normate’ is, and the way the represent, and try to conform to it. I often find myself paying closer attention to my actions, and their relation to what is thought to be normal. To me, the experiences I have had at the Stevens Group, have always related back to the definition of what society deems normal, and the ‘normate’ body in Extraordinary Bodies.

This past thursday was my last visit to the Stevens Group. Many of the members were at Wal-Mart when I arrived, but there still were some members around. When I usually enter the building I see a man named Terry,always sitting in the same place, always smiling. I have always said hi to him, but never sa down with him to talk, what better time than today? Terry is really great, he enjoys it when people talk to him and his smile just gets bigger. Conversation consisted of the usual small talk, the wheather, what is being served for lunch, how each of our days has been. Although there was nothing incredibley special about the conversation with Terry, he was refreshing to talk to. I can’t put my finger on it but Terry is just one of those people who lifts your spirits when your around him. For a little while no one else was really in the mood for conversation or activity, so I read a magazine and said hi to people as they came in, asked them how they were and so on. I noticed that Joan’s car had pulled up at the Stevens Group, but she had not entered the facility yet. I peaked outside the door to find myself watching Joan rustle aimlessly through papers in her car. At first I thought nothing of it, as I had stated in a previous journal Joan has always been saying she has “paper work” to do. She eventually came into the building and sat down to eat some lunch. I sat down with her and asked her if she had some time to play some pool and talk. Joan gave me an exhausted look, and with a wry smile she said “wish I could, but I got too much paper work to do… too much.” That was the last I saw of Joan, she just disappeared into her paperwork and drove off. Peanut seemed to be in better spirits, when I greeted her she actually remembered my name and we engaged in a short conversataion. Peanut looks much better than when I saw her in my last visit, she is acting very lively and is very talkative. I sat and watched Television for a while with some sleepy members and barely talked at all, but that was okay with me I was feeling a bit sleepy myself. I started thinking about Chris, the member I had watched the movie with previously. Chris was in the kitchen half eating, half poking at some pasta in a plastic bowl. When I said “hi” to him he didn’t even respond, which is odd because he and I had such a good talk before. I wasn’t going to be pushy so I said I would see him around and left him alone.

Overall my experiences this visit were very good. I have not felt uncomfortable at all for the last two or three visits. I like that I was able to talk to Terry, if I had not been able to I think my last experience may not have been as good. Terry rocks himself back and forth almost all the time, to an outside person who doesn’t know him he may seem ‘crazy’ looking. Its sad, I would have thought that a few months ago as well. Now I can’t help but feel like I have been privilaged to meet so many nice, caring, and misunderstood persons. I also feel that I have been helped by the very people I thought I was “helping.” This expereince has really opened my eyes. What really made me happy today was Peanut remembering me and talking to me with high spirits. However brief, conversing with peanut helped me feel like I was no longer an outsider at the Stevens Group.

Before taking part in this service learning project, those suffering from mental illnesses were the disabled. Now, my experiences have definitely delivered me to a plane in which I recognize the members at the Stevens Group as people living with mental illness. The notion of disability that I used to believe has totally been wiped out. I recognize that “disability” is a social contextualization, the word is nothing more than a label. “Disability,” in its old meaning to me, defined those who were stuck with its label. Now, however, “disability” is nothing more than a shallow social label given to those of us who appear to physically or mentally not fit the norm. My experiences from this last visit have reinforced my thoughts of “disability.”

Today was different than my other visits. I entered the Stevens Center and I was immediately hit by the smell of bacon. Turns out that the members were making lunch, BLT sandwiches and the whole lot. Lots of the people there seemed to be in a good spirits. I talked with the members who were cooking, they were genuinely enjoying cooking for everyone. Others in the Kitchen also seemed to be in a great mood also. Joan did not show up today but I did meet a man named Chris. Chris is really silent and tends to keep to himself, when I came into the kitchen he was sitting by himself at one of the tables. I went and sat down accross from him and tried to start up a conversation. Chris, it turns out, knows a little about everything it seems. When I asked him if he wanted to play pool, he looked up from the table and said “I’d rather watch a movie.” We got up from the table and started towards the movie room with Chris leading the way. Not more than a few steps into the short venture I was met by Peanut, the elderly woman who tends to take charge of things around the center. Every time i see Peanut she doesn’t seem to remember me, she always asks “Who are you? Have you been here before?” The first time I met her she was very vibrant and full of life, the sharpest I have ever seen her. As my visits have progressed, Peanut has been more withdrawn and aloof. After I briefly said hello to Peanut I went to the Movie room and sat down with Chris. Chris had not put in a movie yet, so he and I started talking about random things: the internet, cars, food, different types of jobs that I would apply to, etc. Unlike Joan, Chris never divulges any information about his personal life. After talking with Chris for about 45 minutes (which is surprising since I haven’t seen him speak that much) we took out the video Speed and started watching it. This is how I spent the rest of my visit, every now and then Chris and I would have a short talk, but nothing that lasted more than a minute. A younger member was sleeping on the coutch next to mine, I believe his name was Jake I’m not completely sure. Jake, has always been around the center each time I have visited, but he is always sleeping or very silent. I would have liked to have talked with him, but I didn’t want to wake him up for that purpose.

I felt really comfortable walking into the Stevens Center today. It may have been the smell of food, or perhaps the friendly and happy atmosphere. When I speak with Peanut, I am concerned because she was presented as the member who knows what is going on around the Center. Lately, she has been wandering and muttering to herself. I saddens me to see such an energetic woman this state of mind. I wanted to try and talk to her, and see if there was something I could do to comfort her. I stopped myself from doing this, who am I to say that she needs my help? Perhaps she feels absolutely fine, or feels as if she is operating smoothly and I am mistaken. I have been trying to keep myself from assuming how the members are feeling at any particular time. Once I started talking with Chris today I was very happy that he was so responsive to me. Before when I would introduce myself to a member I would find myself thinking, “I wonder what mental condtion affects this person?” Now, the question never enters my mind. Talking to Chris was enjoyable, he seemed to be interested in everything I said, even if he didn’t quite understand what i was talking about. I was very interested in what he had to say, his knowledge about diesel engines surprised me; this led to an in depth conversation.

Today I have not seen myself as a “normal” person among the members at the Stevens Center. Rather, the status of “normal” between the members and myself has completely disapeared. This could partially relate to the depiction of the Anomalous and the avoidence of them. I can truthfully say that my experiences at the begining of the Service learning project were governed by this avoidance. I have viewed the members as anomalous, and I did avoid them by separating myself from them in my mind. I had felt that I was in no way like any of the members, because if recognized that I was, I would see myself being afflicted with a mental condition. Now, however, I do not feel this way. I find similarities between myself and each of the members I come into contact with. For example, chris and I are a lot alike in the way we are interested in motors, and general tid-bits of information. The members are not the anomalous anymore, and I have no reason to separate myself from them.

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