Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Citizen Mom

Within our communities are those who serve, without whom, our lives and communities would be significantly different. Usually their names aren’t on plaques, and their service doesn’t receive recognition, but incrementally their work makes all of our lives better, whether we notice their work or not.

When my mom was a young mother in the late Sixties, my father was a salesman for several tech companies, and one of his jobs required a move to Florida. It seemed to my mother to be a great opportunity, at least for my dad, but as both my younger and older brother had Down syndrome, and the educational system in Fort Lauderdale in the early Sixties was primitive to say the least (my sister and older brother actually attended a one room schoolhouse), my mother insisted that my father find another job back in their home town of Chicago. He didn’t find one there, but he did find one in the suburbs of Chicago, so we moved back to Illinois .

We moved to Streamwood, Illinois where yet another sprawling farm had recently been turned into a cookie cutter subdivision. The developer at the time enticed a lot of young families by promising to build a library in the center of the subdivision, right on the end of our street, Library Lane. But that promise wasn’t exactly in writing, other than the brochures they used to sell the lots which aren't exactly legally binding. So after the last house sold, the developer moved on, and the end of my block instead had small field of Queen Anne’s lace where a library was supposed to be. But my mother and several other of the moms in the area didn’t accept that broken promise. Instead they organized to put a petition on the ballot to sell bonds and create a library district along with several other adjoining communities. And it failed. But they also didn’t accept the defeat and re-wrote the referendum, and campaigned harder the second time, going door to door to extol the obvious benefits a library system could provide to the community’s families. And the second time it was on the ballot, it passed. So the Poplar Creek Library District was born. That library that grew out of that field of weeds was where I spent a good portion of my childhood and adolescence, and it is probably one of the primary reasons I’ve spent my entire life devoted to books.

My mother’s service wasn’t limited to the creation of the Poplar Creek Library District. She also worked with the school district to help set-up some of the first special education programs in our local schools. And for over twenty-five years she served on the Hanover Township Youth Commission which created programs for troubled and at-risk youth in our community. Sure, a lot of what she did she hoped would ensure that my brothers would receive the services that their disabilities required, but she was also influential in bringing mainstreaming to the school district, so that kids with disabilities weren’t segregated from the rest of the kids, and both populations could learn from each other. The kids with disabilities learned important social skills, and the rest of the students learned tolerance and acceptance of those with disabilities.

Having two brothers with Down syndrome taught me that every kid with a disability, like the rest of us, is different, and their potential shouldn’t be defined by their disability. But my brothers broke a lot of stereotypes about people with disabilities, and I think that’s as much a testament to my mom as it is to them. My brothers both held full time jobs, lived together independently,  and my younger brother has been both married and divorced. They have lived on their own since graduating high school. They both even have drivers licenses, though rarely drive. That they have built this life for themselves is probably related to their living together and taking care of each other, but it’s also in no small measure related to my mother’s insistence from the very beginning that they would learn the basic life skills necessary to be independent. Yes, they received support from the ARC and Easter Seals in the form of weekly visits and some job coaches, but those ended decades ago. It was my mother’s insistence that they learn to shop, pay their bills, cook, clean their house, and keep a job, that they have achieved what by most standards is an extraordinarily independent life for people with Down syndrome. My younger brother still lives on his own, and if it weren’t for Alzheimer's and stroke, I suspect my older brother would be too. They, and a lot of people back in our home town benefited greatly from a strong and independent woman who didn’t listen to doctors who recommended institutionalization, who pushed school boards to accept and serve all of our citizens, who volunteered to run boring bi-weekly meetings about setting-up budgets for services for the most vulnerable among us.

She was an extraordinary woman, who did amazing things. And now she’s gone. My mom passed a couple of weeks ago, and while it has broken my heart, I think more of the thousands of people whose lives she improved with her quiet, boring, determined, bureaucratic, patient insistence that we all deserve a better life. That we all deserve a fair shake. Her work clearly made my brother’s lives better, but I’ve written this for the others who even today benefit from her work. Those who use the Poplar Creek Library, and the shelters for runaways her budgets created, and the special education programs she helped develop. Her anonymous, voluntary legacy that made the place I grew up a better place for everyone. Thanks, Mom. I miss you.