The road less traveled: Why I work with special needs adults

Tina and Terri meet the Easter Bunny. Photo: Caleb Olds

By Caleb Olds |

It’s no secret – people with mental disabilities are often ignored by society. The average person might be kind to them, but many still do not want to spend any abundance of time in the company of a person with a mental or social disability.

This time can be taxing and often mundane. As such, the first question I am asked by those who discover I am studying to work with the special needs population is almost always close to, “Caleb, what is wrong with you?” To the best of my knowledge, nothing is wrong with me – I simply love working with these wonderful men and women. 

There are generally two main reasons which cause people to begin working with the special needs population. They get a level of personal satisfaction from the work of assisting someone on a day-to-day basis, and they wish to change a life, no matter how stressful some days may get. I cannot claim to know every exact reason for entering the special needs field; however, those two seem to encompass most people’s reasons for entering and staying within the field. Workers in the area of special needs are much like teachers in this way and receive satisfaction from the growth of others.  

My official career started out with being a counselor at Trailways Camp – a week-long camp designed for special needs people. I was amazed to watch these special needs adults do archery, sing campfire songs and fish for the very first time in their lives. Despite my initial reservations, I was enthralled with the campers in my group. David would always wake up excited to go down to the river and catch the biggest fish possible. Valerie would always ask everyone in the group how their day was. Christina would always be ready to try the newest activity. Avis would always make me smile and laugh with his enthusiastic singing.

These innocent men and women were cast out from many homes and communities but had found this wonderful camp all the same and were making the best out of their circumstances. With this test drive of my career over, I went home and submitted my application to Flagler College’s Exceptional Student Education teaching program the very next night. 

I had first decided I wanted to try working with persons with special needs while I was volunteering with a non-profit called “Exceptional Entrepreneurs.” The non-profit provides workplace experience for special needs adults from all over the spectrum: from autism, to cerebral palsy to down syndrome. There, I saw how special needs people are often ostracized by society. They had been bullied at school, their neighborhoods and even sometimes by their own families.

Despite this, they all carried on with the refusal to be defined by any disability they may possess. Jason and Tito were both young woodworkers. Josh and Nicole were extremely talented artists. Robbie would light up any room with jovial laughter. I could name another 20 off the top of my head. At “EE,” as we all called it, they had friends of their own, peers and a community – they were happier than they had been their entire lives. After a year of being with the non-profit, I decided I would study to work professionally with the special needs community. 

The next experience I received was being a weekend caregiver for two special needs women, Tina and Terri. A caregiver is somebody who works with a disabled person in their own home, taking them food, to doctor visits, etcetera. I quickly fell into my new job and received a wealth of workplace experience in return. Tina and Terri each had their own special quirks, which made me even more passionate to work with the special needs community. Terri would occupy much of her time by watching Disney movies and coloring in Disney Princess coloring books, eager to show me each new page as soon as it was completed. She also became visibly excited at the prospect of a new stuffed-animal.

Meanwhile Tina, the tomboy of the two, was obsessed with sports. Every weekend without fail she would ask me, “Jacob, can I get stickers?” By Jacob, she meant me, Caleb. By stickers, she normally meant baseball cards with the occasional baseball-themed sticker. I was able to laugh with them, cry with them and be there for amazing events such as meeting the Easter Bunny. 

If I had ever been doubtful about my choice of career, I certainly had cast that doubt aside at this point. The work with Tina and Terri was tiring, stressful and sometimes confusing. I loved it anyway. The sisters still bring a wide smile to my face whenever I see a photo of us and whenever I hear about their daily adventures from Heather. It is much the same for others who work with the special needs community. We are filled with joy whenever we see these wonderful, innocent people. This joy drives us to push through the stress and fatigue to play a role in the betterment of special needs persons.  

So, no, those who work with special needs people are not “crazy.” We are perfectly sane. Our reason for doing what we do is because we have a fire ignited in our souls which would see us work to better the lives of these special needs communities.

We are like entrepreneurs about to start a new business. We know it will be difficult, messy and sometimes extremely frustrating.

Yet, we can’t wait to begin. 

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