Building Bridges with Berry

I am truly inspired by my friends at DIGS and Skills for Life. These organizations provide opportunities for people with developmental disabilities to build friendships, learn new things, and increasingly have self determination to take charge of their lives!  Because of organizations such as these, our community offers experiences for adults with developmental disabilities that are life enhancing.  Unfortunately, these opportunities are not available in many other communities in the United States.

Dr M. Haney  Working with Barbara Monday and Tracey Kohler, I decided that my  Exceptional Child class (a course for education majors and others interested in  working with people that have disabilities) would partner with DIGS during the  Fall 2013 semester. I have had Berry College students intern with DIGS and  have invited students in my classes to observe and participate in some of the  DIGS events in the past. We have done some great things together. For instance,  one of my students (Claire Horton) hosted an advocacy panel at Berry College  and worked with several DIGS members to share their stories with the Berry  College community. This event, “Conversations with Friends”, was amazing and  drew much interest from Berry College students in how to get involved with DIGS.  However, we never before sat down and intentionally planned a semester of collaborative activities.

We kicked off this collaboration with a visit from several of our friends from DIGS during a scheduled class time at Berry College.  Together my students and several members of DIGS brain stormed about the kinds of activities we might do together.  We all decided that we would plan a dinner together.  After discussing the merits of several great restaurants in town, we voted on Bella Roma. A student in the class who works at Bella Roma, offered to organize the dinner and see about getting us a special table and a good discount. Our dinner with our friends from DIGS and their families was wonderful!   We even celebrated Frankie’s birthday! The food, companionship, and warmth was unparalleled. Apparently, joy and happiness radiated out from our two big tables to others dining at Bella Roma that evening.  To our surprise and delight, at the end of dinner my student waiting on our tables told us there would be no bill!  A couple who frequently dined at the restaurant was so touched by our beautiful group and the friendship we clearly shared, that they had paid our bill (and let me say, it was no small amount either with over 40 of us celebrating that night).

Also during our class collaborative planning session, DIGS members described their photo club and talked about finding an interesting and new photo shoot opportunity at Berry.  DIGS members talked about their desire to learn more about Scary Berry, our haunted house at Berry College sponsored by the Block and Bridle Club.  One Berry Student had a close friend who was president of that organization, and agreed to talk with her about hosting an event where members of DIGS and our class could take pictures while the group was setting up for the haunted house in October.  We ended up having a tour led by the Block and Briddle Club for the DIGS members and the Berry students. I was unable to attend that event, but heard it was super fun!

Another other cool events during which my students collaborated with DIGS was a service project to wrap gifts for teens living at the Open Door Children’s Home. My students commented during class and in their class journals that this was a truly meaningful experience for them.  They talked about the fact that these adults with developmental disabilities decided to do a service project to help teens in need because they realized how in many cases they had blessings that others did not have. Side by side they worked together on this project.  Several of my students expressed how this helped them better understand what service was all about, appreciating and using the gifts you have to help those in need. They also shared that this event worked even more to bridge the gap between the two groups. It wasn’t that my students were doing a service project for the members of DIGS. Rather, together they were friends working together to support a group of people who had significant needs.

There were many other wonderful events and moments during this semester.  For instance, we had a Healthy Living night at the Senior Adult Center.  In addition, a student interning with DIGS put on an art show at the beautiful Ford Dining Hall displaying the lovely art, including award winning photographs, ceramics, water colors, and glass art, made by members of DIGS during their Art Club. In front of a roaring fire and sparkling Christmas tree, several members of the DIGS community came up to the podium and spoke about their art pieces.  Berry College students and community members enjoyed this Saturday morning celebration of the creative spirit over chick-fil-a biscuits!

I will be sharing some of the reflections from my class (approved by the students of course), as I have a chance to scan their journals. It is my hope that we will continue to have these collaborative and inclusive experiences with our friends from DIGS and others with developmental disabilities in our community.  I would like to see this continue to happen within our greater community and especially within our Berry College campus.  

Guest post and photo credit by Dr. Michelle R. Haney, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Psychology, Department Chair, Charter School of Education and Human Sciences, Berry College