A volunteering story by: Luis E Espinosa-Zagal
The Urban Autism Solutions is the name of a residence home for young adults with autism. It is a fairly new project, so there is so far only one building that houses four autistic adults. Paola is a friend of mine who volunteers at the residence home. She says that though she is labeled as a volunteer, she does not feel like one because she only has one task, being a friend. The four residences living there are all men so she refers to them as “the guys.” She says that these guys are amazing, funny, and talented people, but they have a hard time making and keeping friends because of their disorder. Paola is there to be their friend. They hang out together and meet other people together. She especially loves to come Thursday nights to bake something together. Her favorite are oatmeal balls. She also shows them around the city of Chicago and teaches them how to use the transportation systems there to be more independent. They have a hard time socializing so Paola, along with other volunteers and the guys, plan social events at the home where others with or without autism can come in to meet others. She believes the best event they have had so far was the pumpkin-carving event where everyone brought their own pumpkins to carve faces on them. She said there were a ton of artists in the group. She absolutely loves spending time and going out with the guys. She loves it so much she doesn’t feel like a volunteer when she goes.
My friend Paola volunteered there because she enjoys working with people with disabilities. She is currently in the school of education and is hoping to someday be a special education teacher. She was also interested in this opportunity because she has seen first-hand how autism has affected the lives of a loved one. Growing up she had a good friend who had a younger brother with autism. She knew herself that the younger brother was an amazing, funny, and caring kid, but she also noticed that not many people saw that. People judged him at school because he was extremely quiet and wouldn’t like to go out and play with the rest of the boys during recess. Her friend struggled so much because he would see how much his brother struggled in school. She recalled how one day her friend got into a physical altercation at school because one boy had made fun of his brother. She had never seen him that angry before, but he had definitely had enough of people judging his brother. It’s an awful thing to be judged and bullied, but it is even worse when it is happening to someone you love. When she heard of this opportunity to help at the home, she instantly thought of her friend. She knew she wanted to help the residents and she also knew that she wanted to help spread autism awareness. She is big on education and a great way to better the lives of people with autism is to educate the public on autism. She believes that maybe then they could be understood a bit better in public settings.
The Aha! moment…
Volunteering at the residence home is definitely a learning experience. Those with autism usually have a hard time socializing and expressing emotions. This is a huge reason why the guys have a hard time making and keeping friends. They are amazing guys who know how to have fun and make people laugh, but usually people do not give them the opportunity to show themselves. She says that their behavior is usually misunderstood. For example, Daniel is a huge guy who is extremely smart and kind. He’s autistic and has a hard time expressing emotions. He also gets extremely nervous when people speak to him so he tends to barely speak or not speak at all. She said that since he is a huge guy, who usually has a serious face, and is usually not responding, many people assume that he does not want to talk to you or that he is not having fun. This is usually not the case at all for Daniel. People tend to not talk to Daniel to not bother him, but in reality he is always listening and knows a lot about many things. She says he is extremely interesting to talk to, and that they all are. Once you learn the ways that they socialize and the ways in which they express their emotions, you learn a lot about everything because these guys are extremely smart and knowledgeable. She said, “They all have different hobbies and interests so you learn a little of everything just by visiting.” She also said by volunteering there you also learn not to assume that people as antisocial because just maybe they may socialize in different ways.
To summarize it in three words…
- Fun, Friends, Amazing
Why should you do this
She recommends people to volunteer how she did because you will meet some incredible people and do some incredible stuff. She said you can also even make a great friend for life.