Ellen Si.

Today I visited the Carlisle House for the second time with Maddy and Jackie. When we arrived at the Carlisle House, none of us were as apprehensive as we were last week. We quickly took our coats off, and walked right in to greet our friends. We spent the first fifteen minutes talking to Ron and Brenda. We talked about how their past week was and admired the Christmas set-up. Then the three of us walked around for the next ten minutes. We talked to two other female members who were making hot chocolate and taking pictures. Then Maddy, Jackie and I looked around for Scott for ten minutes, but did not find him. While we were looking for him, we said hi to other members. For the next ten minutes, I talked with Christy about the holidays and what she would be doing for them. After that, we spent ten minutes discussing Dickinson and what I am studying. We talked about our families for the following ten minutes, and she told me about her dogs. I told her that I used to have a dog who looked like Toto, from the Wizard of Oz. She told me she doesn’t like to watch movies like that, movies with people stabbing each other in them. For the next ten minutes, she explained why that is to me. During this time, I got to know more about her family. Then she went to have a cigarette for ten minutes, and I spoke with Ron and Jackie. We talked more about cars, and shared stories about our families. We watched Brenda paint Christmas decorations while we did this. When Christy came back, I sat with her and we talked a bit more. During these ten minutes, she told me about someone she had a crush on and we talked about some famous musicians that she finds attractive. Then Christy showed Jackie and I where the members moved the pool table, and we spent the next ten minutes talking about fashion. Then we started to say good-bye to everyone, and they asked us when we were coming back. After telling them we did not know because we have a long break coming up, we left.
My conversation with Christy was probably the most rewarding and interesting interaction that I had at Carlisle House. I was struck by the fact that she is a lot me, and has a very similar appearance to someone I know very well from home. Only three years older, we are very close in age and therefore have a lot in common in terms of where we are in our lives. I really enjoyed talking with Christy. I felt just like I was making a new friend, which is a feeling I have had many times before. But this time, I recognized the fact that this friendship, if you could call it that, was different because Christy is a unique person in terms of her life experience. Indeed, the stories Christy told me really struck me. Perhaps this was because I found myself able to relate to them, and able to relate to how she felt when she experienced the memories she was sharing with me. I found myself completely unaware of the fact that she is a person with a mental disability, and glad that I found someone I could relate to.
Though I really did look beyond Christy’s appearance and though I did disregard the fact that she is a person with a mental disability, I find it interesting that I chose to bond with her out of all the members at Carlisle House today. It was less obvious that she is a person with a mental disability compared to all the other members. Additionally, as I stated earlier, she has a similar appearance to someone I know very well from home. I wonder if I gravitated toward the person who I thought would be most like me. Or if I applied one of the cultural strategies of coping that Mary Douglas outlines in her “Dirt” theory. Perhaps I interpreted those who did not look like me as dangerous, and therefore avoided them. I certainly did avoid the members that were less friendly and less groomed, because I was unaware of how to approach them and how to interact with them. I think a part of me irrationally was still a bit uneasy around the members that did not seem most like me. I think this was a result of the fact that I did not know them well. Though I am very aware that all members of Carlisle House are not in any way dangerous or worthy of being avoided, I believe I reacted this way because I have been taught to do so my entire life.

My first interactive visit to Carlisle House was on Tuesday, November 29th. After trekking through the rain with Maddy and Jackie and discussing what we thought the experience would be like, we arrived at Carlisle House. We spent about five minutes taking off our rain gear and observing our surroundings. For the next ten minutes, we introduced ourselves to the members and wandered around. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves, and there was not anyone to tell us where to go. We made our way into the kitchen, where we talked with a female member who was washing dishes for ten minutes. She told us what they had for lunch, and what she was doing for the rest of the day. We met her friend Peggy and talked with her about their Thanksgiving celebration. We then started talking with Scott, who was playing poker on his computer. We talked with him for a long time. We spent about ten minutes talking about poker and car races. For the next ten minutes, we talked with him about where he lives now and his plans to move to Queens, NY. Then we talked for ten minutes with him about Japan, and how he wants to visit Japan this summer. He told us that he went to a community college for a year and studied Japanese. He tried to teach us some Japanese, but I got too confused by the concepts he was teaching us. During the last ten minutes in which we talked with him, we shared anecdotes about our lives and he shared some about his. We also discussed the Carlisle community, the new stores that are coming to the area, and where he works (McDonald’s). The girls and I then left him to play poker on his computer, and we were back to wandering around. When we went into the main sitting room, a man named Ron seemed very interested in talking with us, so we pulled up chairs. We spent the majority of the time left in our visit talking with him. He was sitting with another man named Terry and an older woman. However, Ron clearly was the most interested in talking with us. For the first ten minutes, we talked with them about where we were from and what classes we were taking. Then, for the next ten minutes we talked with Ron about his interests. He, like Scott, is very interested in cars. He likes car races and mechanics. We also talked with him about his Thanksgiving. In the next ten minutes, we learned that he got into a very bad car accident two years which left him on medication and with scars on his face and pins in his foot. For the last ten minutes we talked with him, he brought up facts about his family, like his brother’s occupation and where his cousin lives. Ron had to leave to see his mother, so the girls and I talked with a woman named Mel for the next ten minutes about computers, music, karaoke and where she lives. After that, we said goodbye to everyone, told them we would see them next week, and left.

When I first got to Carlisle House, I had no idea what to do with myself. I really wanted to interact with the members, but many of them seemed wrapped up in their own activities, and I did not want to interrupt them. I also was unsure of how they would receive me. I was drawn to those members who were outgoing and who seemed interested in me. Specifically, Scott and Ron are very talkative and did not hesitate to jump into conversations I was having with other members. I really liked this quality of theirs because it made me feel as though they accepted my presence in their environment. Although I went with Maddy and Jackie, I definitely felt like I was an outsider in the beginning of my visit to the Carlisle House. Scott is also very bright, and knew many things I did not know. For example, when he started discussing the Wal-Mart situation with Maddy, I did not have anything to add to the discussion. In truth, I felt ignorant in many ways sitting next to him. I guess it surprises me that a person with mental disabilities could be more knowledgeable than me about certain things. But I did not have the interaction I had with Scott with all the members. Many of the members did not acknowledge me at all. I think the range of interactions I had with the members is very interesting, and similar to those I might experience in a real-world setting. For example, if I met someone with mental disabilities in a real-world setting and we were both willing to interact we each other, I believe we could have a very successful and beneficial interaction. However, if both or one of us were not willing to interact with each other, our interaction would therefore be hindered.

This experience enables me to better understand the manner in which Lionel, the main character from Motherless Brooklyn, is treated throughout the book. Because my visit to the Carlisle House was framed with a course and readings on people with mental disabilities, it was an effective visit in that it stripped me of many stereotypes I held of people with mental disabilities. I believe this was partially because I prepared myself for the experience by trying to have as open a mind as possible. Simply having interactions with people with mental disabilities in real-world settings would not have achieved the same goal. I now realize that the people Lionel is surrounded with in Motherless Brooklyn are not able to get past certain stereotypes because they have never interacted with a person with mental disabilities in the setting I did. Furthermore, many of them automatically assume that Lionel will behave in certain ways based on the fact that he has Tourrette’s syndrome and their observations of other people that behave in similar ways. Though they know Lionel very well, they do not know his disorder very well. Therefore, they interpret his actions as something he cannot control and therefore dangerous to them and society. In reality, though it is true he cannot control many of his actions, this does not mean he is dangerous.

I expect this experience to be unlike any other interaction I have had with people with mental disabilities. Though I have come into contact with individuals who have mental disabilities in my high school and in my hometown, I never spent a lengthy amount of time getting to know them on a personal basis. I expect that the time I spend in Carlisle House interacting with its members will enable me to get to know them on an individual basis. Because I will be able to have detailed conversations with them and do activities with them, I anticipate that I will come to understand that we have many things in common. I foresee that I will truly enjoy my time spent at Carlisle House primarily as a result of the relationships I will form with the members.

As Carlisle House focuses on social interactions between its members, it provides many activities and facilities for them. These activities and facilities include daily outings, movies, a horticulture room, a game room, and an arts and crafts corner. I spent two years managing children’s arts and crafts parties, and one summer as an arts and crafts counselor. I believe I could design many arts and crafts activities that the members would enjoy. While completing the projects, we could have meaningful interactions.

Personally, I anticipate that I could impact Carlisle House and its members by taking a sincere and active interest in the members. Every time I attend the Carlisle House, I will remember that the members also have stereotypes of my community in their mind. Therefore, by treating the members just as I would treat any other person, I will attempt to break down some of these stereotypes.

After completing my orientation at the Carlisle House, I expect my community’s biggest potential problem to be one of communication with the members of the Carlisle House. I believe that it might initially be difficult for members of my community to identify common ground with the members of Carlisle House. Therefore, we may struggle to find things to talk about with the members in the beginning of our experience. Because we are unsure of how much we are able to relate to the members, I believe that we will frequently talk down to the members in the beginning. In other words, I anticipate that we will find ourselves in conversations with them that are similar to those we would have with young children. Perhaps initially we will believe we have to avoid complex subject matter, under the assumption that they would not be able to comprehend it or that they have not had the same experiences we have. Clearly, this issue is connected to stereotypes of people with mental disabilities. As this service-learning project progresses, hopefully this stigma will be eradicated in my community.