I had lost a lot during the years preceding my work with the special needs community. I had lost a mother to colon cancer. I had lost guidance and wisdom, along with the money needed to finance my education, to my father’s alcoholism. A nineteen-year-old boy, I felt as though I had lost myself. Losing my job was the final nail in what felt at the time like a coffin. I struggled to find the heart to accept and embrace the many roles I needed to fulfill in my journey into manhood.
My roommate during this time of my life worked for a non-profit organization providing residential and day-support-services to severely and profoundly mentally handicapped individuals. The residence needed a cook to work evenings and weekends. I was more than a little skeptical. I had no experience cooking for anyone other than myself. More importantly, I had no experience working with special needs individuals, much less severely and profoundly needy individuals.
I lied to my interviewers and told them that I was an experienced cook. I had cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for myself every day for the past several years. That counted right? I hate to admit this, but I thought to myself, ‘they won’t know the difference anyway.’ Not in reference to the interviewers, but toward the clientele.
The truth is that at this point in my life, I suffered from a case of situational heartlessness; some refer to it as selfishness. Whatever the affliction, I simply could not consider the needs of others while so overwhelmed with personal issues. I had yet to even meet the residents for whom I would cook breakfast, lunch and dinner. That of course would soon change.
I started work on a Sunday morning, 6:30am. The menu called for biscuits and gravy. As I struggled to fulfill dietary specifications for fifteen clients, a voice sounded through the large window that connected the kitchen to the dining area. “YEEA!….YEa…. yea,” said the voice.
After the “yeahs” came a knocking on the metallic counter and laughter that began loudly and continued in short, hushed, bursts as if some hilarious punch line were repeating over and over. Then came another, “YEEEA! YEa…yea,” at first excited, then increasingly calmer and quieter. The source of the “yeahs” yet unseen, I smiled as I approached the joviality.
Opposite the lunch counter and the window through which I would offer meals, sat a man unlike any man I had seen before. Wheelchair bound, he sat buckled in atop a pair of tiny legs and feet that pointed in opposite directions from one another. He had an unusually large head with short, dirty-blond hair receding atop of a pumpkin forehead with several long scars above his left ear. His arms, though disproportionately small in comparison to his head, looked strong.
The man’s appearance was shocking, but his smile displayed a warmth and curiosity with just a hint of mischievousness that forced me to smile along with him. The man reached to his head and pretended to remove a handful of hair. He extended his arm in my direction with balled fist, invisible hair and mischievous grin. Unsure of how to proceed, I extended my right fist and touched my knuckles to his. With this gesture the man burst into wild laughter. I laughed too. This was Jacob, my first friend and my introduction to the special needs community.
Jacob became a fixture at the lunch counter window. No matter how I felt, I was greeted with a fake handful of hair and a laugh upon responding to Jacob’s friendly gestures. Jacob laughed a lot and I enjoyed having him around, not just because he answered all of my questions with a “Yea.” Though Jacob and I were fast friends, I proceeded with caution.
I met all of the clients and I learned why each person needed special care. I learned what foods the clients could or could not ingest. I learned who could not have spicy foods or artificial sweeteners. Who needed pureed foods, thickened drinks, white sauce instead of tomato, or a special spoon. I knew these people intimately yet I kept my distance behind the lunch counter.
I learned a lot about the staff as well. The kitchen provided a quiet haven from the hectic environment looming just beyond the window. Perhaps because of the quietude or the ease of conversation that comes with eating and drinking, or perhaps because I was the only male staff member, whatever the reason, my co-workers, perhaps unwittingly, divulged their innermost secrets within my presence.
When staff visited some spoke of personal problems, or those of co-workers. Some spoke of the difficulty of the work or felt the need to justify working in “a place like this.” A few expressed concern for the clientele and hoped to improve services. I listened to them all.
During my first six months of cooking I witnessed nearly one hundred percent staff turnover, including two bosses. I developed an ability to predict whether or not a new staff member would last, just by listening to their concerns. Nearly always, staff who lasted more than four months were those with client well being in mind. Both good and bad the staff helped to inspire my change of heart.
The changes came about slowly. I began to notice the impact of my presence within the residence. I noticed how Manny would smile and roar like a dinosaur when I entered the building. I roared back at him and waved. Jacob was no longer alone at the lunch counter. The counter resembled a drive in movie theatre with myself as the feature and wheelchairs in place of cars. When new staff oriented I was asked to translate for Victor who, though difficult to understand, was the only client able to express his needs verbally.
To my own surprise I was beginning to take pride in the connections that I was making with the residents. Because Victor was, in a sense, the voice of the residents, I felt as though I needed his blessing. So far, I was unable to connect with him as I felt I had with other clients. Gaining Victor’s trust would represent my most difficult challenge and my greatest reward.
Victor was the resident patriarch. It was said that he either liked you, or he did not. Victor had lived at the residence as long as anyone and he had long since honed his ability to weed out staff who would last and those who would not. He listened and he observed and he knew better than to befriend a short-timer. In Victor’s eyes, I was a new staff member and I was treated as such.
Victor complained about every meal that I prepared except hotdogs, hamburgers, and french-fries. He would ask what I was making and then refuse to eat. He would take one bite of vegetable lasagna, spit it out and cough as though the lasagna were eating him. I tried not to get discouraged. I announced the menu night after night to Victor’s disgust. I often joked that we were having Victor’s favorite when I prepared delicacies such as Brussels sprouts. Victor was not amused.
Despite my persistence with Victor, I began to think that he had passed me off as he had so many new staff. One evening however, as I was cleaning the dining area after dinner, Victor did something out of the ordinary. 4He asked to remain in the dining area instead of watching television or visiting his girlfriend, Cindy, as he normally did. He did not give a reason for the change of routine.
I worked as usual until I noticed that Victor was staring at me. Whenever I lifted my eyes from the push broom he was there, studying my every move. After several minutes, I stopped sweeping and leaned with both hands on the broom handle. I stared back at Victor who, when not talking, eating or yawning, would rest his tongue between his pursed lips as if protruding the tongue in childish mockery.
We maintained eye contact for several seconds as though forcing one-another to blink. Finally I accepted defeat and turned my eyes to the ever-growing heap of dropped and discarded dinner.
Just as my left hand slid to the middle of the broom and my eyes met the floor, Victor spoke, “EEhy.” I returned to my previous position, eyeing Victor once again. I remained silent in expectation of profound questions or comments that would end our relationship of indifference and cement the bond that I had hoped to form with Victor.
Victor licked his lips, retracted the tongue…….”Wah you doin?” was the question. Disappointed with the simplicity of the query I answered, “Sweeping the floor.” The tongue protruded and then retracted once again. “Where you live?”
“I live in an apartment over near the college where I go to school.” Again the tongue. “Wah you doin after work?” he asked. “Well I have some homework to do and I might watch the end of the football game if I have time.” The tongue found its resting place once again.
I waited for more questions, but I received only silence and a quizzical stare. Twenty seconds passed until the next words flew from Victor’s lips. I was sure that the all-important questions were coming. The tongue retracted. “Marlene! I wanna watch TV!” And that was it. So ended our first non-complaining, non-food-related conversation.
The all-important questions would not come that night. Nor would they ever come during my more than three years of cooking at the residence. They were not necessary. My treasure was unearthed. I had taken our first conversation for granted as trivial, or simple yet it had meant so much more to Victor. From that night on, Victor waited in the dining room after dinner. Our conversations were never more than our first conversation yet they were all just as important.
The treasure revealed itself over time as the universal bond that is the basic human need for contact, normalcy and the knowledge or sense that someone understands and cares about us. The bond is present regardless of IQ, race, gender or socioeconomic status. These ideas may seem obvious to the reader, but at this point in my life I was unable to comprehend them. The longer I worked in the field however, the more I realized just how much of human behavior, my own included, is driven by the need for understanding and normalcy.
I realized that Victor was not indifferent to my presence. He was careful. He had been hurt too many times before and while he may have wanted my friendship, he would not commit himself before he was certain of my commitment. In spite of all that I had lost prior to my work in the special needs field; I felt for the first time that I had so much to give.
I continued to cook for another three years after this night. I began working one on one with the clients in addition to cooking. After graduating from college, I was promoted to Residential Instructor. I now manage my own group home for the same company.
* Stories From the Heart is an ongoing series of user contributed heart warming stories, that shine light on the Autism experience.