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Tai's Gift: mobilizing community capacity

Four years ago in our community, a young mother gave birth to a baby who happened to have Down Syndrome.  A few months after her son was born, one of her closest friends decided to host a 'coming out' party for this little boy and his family. Fifty people gathered in a huge log house and welcomed the baby to the community.  Towards the end of the evening, a visitor from Japan said to the baby's father, "It's a very good custom you have here."

Our new friend and her family moved North for a couple of years and returned to Vancouver Island this Fall. Her son is now four years old, and clearly has some big struggles ahead of him - Down Syndrome was only part of the picture. 

Faye and I talked with her for hours about the experience of raising a child with major communication and sensory challenges, and we listened as she expressed her delight at finding people who would accept her child exactly as he is. Connecting with people who would dream with her, work with her, and share what will unquestionably be a tough journey particularly moved her. 

For some time now, we've been members of an Internet mailing list called 'Our-Kids' (http://www.our-kids.org) that supports over a thousand families worldwide. When we talked to our friend about this list, she said, "You know that I have been transformed by this little boy, and I have a completely different connection with the community than I did before he was born. I would love to be able to share what I'm learning with new families. I also want to share it with families right here in BC." 

We discovered that she has a great deal to share with other young families. She's thoughtful, strategic, hopeful and articulate. So how might we enable her to share her gift? 

Here's what we did:

We invited Tai's family to connect with a new Glendale Institute project on assistive technology (see http://www.bcatech.org).

Our friends at WestPro Benefits (http://www.westproweb.com) contributed an Internet-ready computer. The Glendale Institute agreed to receive this designated donation and manage it as part of a long-term equipment lending library. 

We brought the computer to the community where our friend and her family live, but instead of delivering it to the family, we delivered it to a local civic association - the Parksville Rotary Club. 

We said to the Rotary club, "We have a gift to be delivered in this community, and we want you to deliver it. WestPro has donated this computer through the Glendale Institute, so this won't cost you a penny. But we want you to do something else. We are absolutely certain that among your members there are people who use the Internet. You're comfortable with the 'Net, and you're comfortable with the process of helping someone get connected to the Internet. 

"We would like you to deliver this computer to the family and also deliver someone who can get them up and running on the Internet. This is important because they need direct access to information about Down Syndrome, language development and gentle teaching, but even more importantly, she has a great gift to share with the community. This mother has a lot of insight to offer to families who have children with disabilities, and the Internet connection makes that possible. 

"There's more. She knows that it's important to make our own community stronger. And we know that your organization is founded on that principle. She would like to find some way to contribute to the work that you're doing. Maybe the club member who helps her get set up on the Internet can think with her about what that contribution might be, or it might be another member who comes up with the idea. She has friends in the nearby First Nations community, she's connected with people who are interested in home schooling, and she has good friends in the local business community. Maybe some of those connections could be valuable to the work that you are doing here." 

Look at what's happening 

Once the family is up and running on the Internet, the mother can access specific information, support and encouragement from a worldwide community of parents and professionals. And she has a way to share her knowledge with other families who are raising young children with disabilities. 

She's contributing to her local community, immediately by getting on board with an influential civic association, and later by helping to mentor the next family that we bring online. Our friends in the civic association are already thinking about what the project might be. Among other things, they are involved in work on clean water supplies worldwide, and they're exploring how our friend might eventually help to publicize this effort in the worldwide community of families of children who have disabilities. 

At least one person from the Rotary club is getting to know the young child and his family well -- they have a real working relationship. Club members are beginning to see the family in the context of gift-giving and capacity, rather than in terms of needs and deficits. 

If her connection with the civic association is thoughtfully supported, in the very long run, forty or fifty people might feel a connection with her son. They work in real estate, logging, retail, the local library, marketing, financial services. They're in a perfect position to help create a vibrant, connected future for a little boy with Down Syndrome and communication challenges. By the time he's ready to work, he's not a stranger to them; they've been thinking about him for years. 

Now the men and women who are part of the civic club are thinking differently about their own kids -- not just the ones with disabilities, but all their kids. And when the next baby with Down Syndrome comes along, the community knows what to do. 

All of this happens with a donated computer, an Internet connection, and some strategic facilitation. 

Sharing the Vision 

The way the WestPro contribution 'cascades' is that we're telling the story to the business community and encouraging other businesses to make similar contributions. A computer and an Internet connection can bring a family's gift to their local community, the work of a worldwide civic association, and many families who journey with children with disabilities. What if we were able to do this in fifty BC communities? 

The way the process of engagement 'cascades' is that we're telling the story to the community of interest around disability and assistive technology. We share the pattern and encourage people to find the 'WestPros' in their own localities. 

We know the importance of maximizing community contributions and maximizing exposure. Every contribution is tied to a conscious strategy of engagement, connection building and gift-giving. 

The reason we work hard to maximize exposure is that it not only honours our sponsors, it sends some other important signals: that a strong community works to identify and mobilize the gifts of all members; that strategic engagement can create major shifts -- from dependency to contribution, from reliance on formal systems to personal commitments, and from isolation to collaboration and companionship. 

2003 David and Faye Wetherow ! CommunityWorks

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