Volunteer work is a term that initially means very little to some high school students but ends up meaning quite a bit after you’ve actually done some. My senior summer was coming to a close. I had done some volunteering in the past but nothing was quite like my experience at Redwood. It’s called Redwood Rehabilitation Center and it’s a specialized school for children and adults with mental disabilities. My first day started at seven in the morning and continued until noon.
‘Great,’ I joked. ‘Now I’ll be there long enough to go insane myself.’
I found my room and sheepishly opened the child-safe lock that held the door shut. I entered, and suddenly I was back in kindergarten. The ceiling was lined with plastic and clay mobiles of the solar system and various children were attacking an enormous pile of toys in an attempt to find their favorite plaything. That’s when I noticed him lying there. The metal braces fixed to his legs shined in the light and his plastic heel guards were brightly animated with cartoon characters. His back was down, and he was enthusiastically smacking a plastic contraption which he held in place with his mouth. ‘Who is that boy,’ I asked one of the teachers.
“O that’s Patrick.”
‘Is it safe for him to chew on that toy?’ I half expected her to admit her carelessness and take the toy from his mouth. But instead, she tried to smile and almost began to whisper.
“Patrick is blind, deaf and because he’s partially paralyzed, he has to manipulate the toys so he can play with them.”
I was stunned into silence. I half-heartedly nodded at the teacher and felt like I didn’t belong in the room. How could I be a helpful volunteer without even taking the time to consider such a possibility?
I was angry with myself, but despite that I couldn’t take my eyes off Patrick. I had heard of blindness at birth and that some people could suffer from deafness at an early age. I had even seen some of the horrific effects of childhood muscular atrophy, but never had the three been so hideously intertwined. I felt sick. Quickly I averted my eyes from Patrick. I asked myself why some should grow up and become great while others are incapable of even growing? I wondered how utterly destitute Patrick was to never be able to see a setting sun or hear an opera. But then I saw him again out of the corner of my eye. This time he was slapping his favorite toy with even harder force than before as it dangled from his half open mouth. Curiosity got the better of me and I walked towards him.
He didn’t notice when I sat down next to him. I watched as he continued to spin his toy. Suddenly, he rolled on his stomach and began to crawl, unwittingly placing his hand down upon mine as he struggled to propel himself across the carpet. He stopped. The toy fell from mouth and his face turned towards me. His hands slowly came up as my torso became the object of his curiosity. Like a person feeling their way through a darkened house, Patrick examined my hands, face, and hair. I sat completely still until he was satisfied. It was a strange feeling at first; however, by interacting through touch instead of words, Patrick conveyed his feelings.
Patrick retreated to a corner of the carpet and resumed his activity of slapping the plastic toy. I followed him there and became completely absorbed in his actions. He then lifted a box above his head and buried his face within. I gently tapped the box with my finger and watched as he stopped and tapped back. I then tapped the box twice and watched Patrick’s excitement grow as he began to bang the box and squirm with enthusiasm as I tapped back. This interaction continued until lunch was served. By then my arm had grown tired from so much tapping.
I left after lunch, but I wasn’t the same. Patrick and I connected that day. Sometimes I think that it’s unfair he’ll never be given the opportunity to speak to others, or be called upon by his teacher.
Well Patrick, this is your turn. Patrick, unable to walk, yet we ran, unable to hear, yet I heard your voice loud and clear, blind, yet you made see what was so precious and beautiful in my life. Thank you.
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