Aimee W

I think my experiences at the Steven’s Group helped me to see mental disability in its most latent forms. When I first arrived at the center, I expected the most extreme cases of mental illness. Stephanie (the director of the Steven’s Group) informed us that most of the members of the center suffered from either depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and in some cases, multiple personality disorder. I had only ever come in contact with people who were extremely debilitated by these illnesses; so it was different for me to work with individuals who were able to cope effectively with their diseases. It’s hard to say that I was ‘exposed’ to the various impairments Stephanie told us about, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The members of the Steven’s center are so lucky because they have found a place where they can not only learn how to cope with their illness, but also deal with the day to day struggles that define life. They are being taught to hope and take pride in what they accomplish. When you look at these people, you notice disability, but it is not what defines them. Instead you see individuals who are learning to take confidence in all they can do.
I think the biggest benefit of the Steven’s Center is that it provides a welcoming environment for individuals suffering with mental disability to go and feel safe. There is a sense of community among the members, and it helps that people can come to the Steven’s Group and realize that they do not have to deal with their issues alone. In many cases, the members’ problems extend far beyond their own disability, and the Steven’s Group acts as a place where these people can go and let their guard down. Even if it is only for a few hours each day, the set schedule at the Steven’s center gives its members a consistency that does wonders in helping them to learn how to live with their disability. The director has a lot of hope for these people, and she and other working at the center are teaching the members to have a great hope in themselves. The focus is on what they can accomplish, and the hurdles seem to be less difficult to overcome when they have others there to help them along.
I don’t know how much I was able to impact the members of the Steven’s Center for the short amount of time I was there. Stephanie kept reassuring us that just our coming did wonders to change the misconceptions that the members had towards Dickinson students, which was good to hear. Just having someone to talk and listen to can make a world of difference, and I did my best to take time to do that each week I went to the center. We tried to do activities to break up the monotony of the day, and even though they might have seemed like total failures to us, you could tell the people really enjoyed them. For instance, the last week Marissa and I decided to do an Easter Egg Hunt for the members. It didn’t seem to matter that Easter was still weeks away or that it wasn’t too challenging or even that we forgot to put candy in some of the eggs. They were so excited about it! I guess it just goes to show how the little things go far in making someone’s day a little brighter.
I think the biggest problem the Steven’s Center members face in ‘normative’ society is being accepted. Their disability is almost a blessing and a curse; they are blessed to have milder forms of their illness, but it almost makes it harder for them because society is not as patient with people who are not so obviously disabled. You hear about those cases where individuals fake disability to reap the benefits, and I think it makes people skeptical of those who have disabilities that aren’t as noticeable. Outside the walls of the Steven’s Center, society is not so hopeful for mentally disabled individuals. The media portrays the mentally disabled as nutcases who are liable to ‘snap’ and become violent, which only makes the majority of society fear this misunderstood group. Hopefully the presence of the Steven’s Group can help to combat the common misconceptions of mental illness, and work towards community and acceptance of their differences.
This experience has helped me to better understand what we have been learning about in class. Although my experiences with the individuals at the Steven’s Center do not necessarily match the most extreme cases of disability we have been reading about, I feel like I have a better understanding of how the disabled minority functions in a society that is harshly un-accepting. I was surprised to see how closely my own experiences reflected Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s strategies for coping with the disabled. It was hard to admit that I was no different than the majority of society when it came to judging what I did not understand. At least this experience helped me to change my perceptions, which is the most important thing .I went from categorizing someone by their disability to seeing it as only one aspect of who they are as a person.

On Wednesday, Marissa and I made our final visit to the Steven’s Center. We made a pit stop at Wal-Mart to get some plastic eggs for our planned Easter Egg Hunt, and then headed over to the center. We were greeted cheerfully as always, and Marissa and I made our rounds to greet the people and chat with them for a little while. Carol was intent on playing Uno with us like “last time”, so we found a few other interested members and played a few rounds of cards. Carol kept calling the game “You Know” which was probably only amusing to me. While we were playing, Marissa and I got to meet the new assistant director of the center, although I can’t seem to remember her name now. She seemed nice though, and was already working to build relationships with the members of the Steven’s Group. After several riveting rounds of Uno, Marissa and I separated ourselves and filled all the eggs we brought with candy to give a little incentive. I guess we didn’t realize until we actually got there how pointless an egg hunt would be at the Steven’s Center- everything is just a big open space! We did our best though, and the members did seem to enjoy the change of activity, even if it did only last for ten minutes. Chocolate always makes people smile…although several of the members told us they would have preferred money instead.
I had really mixed feelings about our “last trip”. I liked learning what the group was about, and four weeks was definitely enough time to understand the purpose of the Steven’s Center. However, building relationships and really feeling like you made a difference in someone’s life takes a little longer, so in many ways I felt like my service at the Steven’s Center was incomplete. Our volunteer time served its purpose for our class though; I do seem to have a better understanding of what it’s like to be disabled. Just being there, I got a sense of how hard it must be for these people to fight the stereotypes of what society assigns to the mentally ill. It was encouraging to help out at an organization that is trying to do something to help the disabled to help themselves, and I am glad I got to experience it. I hope that our time at the center helped to change the misconceptions about the “snotty Dickinson student”, and I know that the director of the Steven’s Group, Stephanie, was glad to have all of us. Hopefully we were as much of a help to her as she was to us.
My definition of ‘disabled’ has changed because of my time spent at the Steven’s Center. Disability has a face now—well, many faces, and it has a depth and complexity that it didn’t before. In mindset, these people are not disabled. They think of themselves as fully capable and competent human beings, and because of their confidence they will most likely succeed. They are trying to become the ‘normate’, but aren’t we all? I guess the biggest thing I’ve learned from my time at the Steven’s Center is that we are all really not that different. We all have little pieces of ourselves that don’t exactly fit into what society would consider ‘normal’, but sometimes it’s those things that make us better. I really admire these people for what they are trying to do; it takes a lot of courage.

Marissa and I got to the Steven’s Group at around 12:30 on Wednesday afternoon. We said hello to the people; we could even do this by name now, the faces were looking familiar. We spent most of our time interviewing the director of the center, Stephanie, so that we would have the information we would need when it came time to complete our Wiki page. We had our sheets with us with the questions we should have answers to, but we strayed a lot from the outline. It was a good thing though; the more Stephanie shared with us about the group the more questions I had, and we wound up talking for a while just about the perceptions society has for the mentally ill. She told us how great it was that Dickinson students were coming to do this; I guess a lot of the center members have negative feelings towards the “snotty and rich students that go there.” Changing how the community views these people can start with us, and it’s a really good thing for the members to see that we actually care, and don’t fit the stereotype. Talking with Stephanie was really informative, and we still have more questions for her to answer for us next week!
I didn’t have much contact with the group members this week, but I still took a lot away from my time there. Talking with Stephanie was great; I was finally able to ask the questions that ran through my head each time I went to the Steven’s Group. We should have probably been interviewing Stephanie a lot sooner in our service learning experience, because after talking with her, I feel much more comfortable with what the mission is for these people. Some things about the program still don’t make sense to me, but that’s probably just my ignorance on the mentally ill shining through. I think I finally understand the fluid system of employing and working with people to push them towards greater independence. Walking in the first day, I remember being so confused and uncomfortable with the people because I didn’t know who worked there and who attended as a member. The system is apparently very relaxed, which is something that baffles me a little bit but I guess it teaches me to treat everyone the same. The one thing I will say though: Stephanie’s confidence in the people really rubs off. The members are encouraged, the students working with the members are encouraged, and I think that makes all the difference.
Talking with Stephanie reminded me of Mary Douglas’s fifth strategy for coping with cultural anomaly. In her description of the strategy, Mary Douglas suggests “incorporating the anomalous elements into ritual to enrich meaning or to call attention to other levels of service.” Even though this is my third trip to the center, this was the first week where this concept really stuck out to me. I guess it was because I had the time to talk with someone who spends everyday with people, trying to help enforce a positive outlook on life in their minds. Stephanie started the Steven’s Group it seems, in response to Mary Douglas’s suggestion. The calendar of daily events is filled with activities that will help the people take care of themselves, and the people seem to take pride in the tasks they are able to accomplish. In fact, just today one of the guys on kitchen staff told me “You should have been here for Hamburger Helper; we made it and did a really good job”. The people are not only learning skills that will help them once they leave the center, but they are learning to take pride in what they do. That is probably the greatest hurdle Stephanie and the other staff members have had to overcome in the program. I think it’s awesome that someone would want to take the time to work with this group of people. Stephanie won’t change the world by doing this, but she might be able to change the way a community in a little town in central Pennsylvania looks at the disabled.

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