How Being A Volunteer For The Special Needs Community Changed Me

When Joe Earp was spiralling into a rut, his Mother asked him to volunteer for special needs children – and it would quickly turn his life around.

Six years ago, I was at a loose end. I was trying and failing to make it as a full-time writer and poet, drinking too much coffee, chain-smoking my night away, and spending hours staring at the blank, jeering nothing of an empty word document.

Things got dire, fast. It wasn’t just that I was constantly poor, scabbing money off my parents and adopting cooking sherry as my go-to affordable drink of choice (not recommended, by the way) – it was that the boredom and isolation was eating up at me. I was ever-retreating into my own head, and as my poetry got more and more self-indulgent, I lost sight of all concerns but my own.

I’m not sure what would have happened to me if it wasn’t for my mum – the assistant principal of a school for children with special needs – and her suggestion that I come in and do some casual work as a teacher’s aide. I was reticent at first, and even though I had always been aware of the special needs community thanks to her line of work, I still subscribed to a range of myths about those with intellectual and physical disabilities.

I thought they could be dangerous, and was overly concerned about their behavioural needs. I thought I might be bored, unable to connect with members of the community effectively. And most of all, I thought the experience would be depressing – that their disability would push me further into my spiral of self-indulgence.

“The idea that teachers learn from their students and not the other way round might be a cliché, but through my work at the school I discovered it to be an unavoidable truth.”

And yet almost from my very first day working at the school, I realised how wrong I had been about the entire process of becoming a member of the special needs community. I began working alongside a young man with autism, a student who required a 1:1 aide assisting him throughout the day so that he might access educational programs, develop self-management skills and interact with his peers and the community at large.

The idea that teachers learn from their students and not the other way round might be a cliché, but through my work at the school I discovered it to be an unavoidable truth. The student I was working with had limited language but a deep, striking love for people. His concerns were not about possessions and though he had his favourite toys – items that helped calm him when he became anxious due to a change in routine, for example – he would give them up in return for some time with the people he loved in a heartbeat.

In that way, he helped reorganise my priorities; helped teach me about a world that existed outside of my own head. It is hard to feel sorry for yourself or to worry about how you’re going to get your hands on the next drink when you are both working with and caring deeply about someone for whom such concerns are irrelevant. The student and I helped each other: support went both ways, and in that way we became true friends.

“He helped reorganise my priorities; helped teach me about a world that existed outside of my own head.”

I worked alongside that student five days a week for almost six years; six years in which I was taught the value of connecting with others rather than just using people as a way to validate things about myself, and six years in which I was able to meet some of the most incredible young people I have ever encountered.

Over that six year period, I also found a large number of my friends were interested in becoming involved in the community but were unsure of how or where to start. They were as concerned as I had been, worried that they might find the experience confronting or difficult.

My advice for how to get involved

To that end, my advice for those wanting to become an active member of the special needs community always starts with the essential first step – reach out. Don’t keep mulling it over, or worry that you will be rejected for trying to help. Wherever you live, you will find there is a special needs school (or SSP, as they’re often called) near you. Pop in and talk to reception, register your interest, and you will be surprised how quickly and warmly you are received.

But even if you don’t want to assist in the school setting, and are worried that the full length of the school day might be too much for you, there are still other options available. Your area will also have a local post-school program for adults and school leavers with disabilities who will be similarly happy to have you as a volunteer. Most, if not all, have a website, and you can often reach out via e-mail or just by picking up the phone and giving them a call.

These post-school programs tend to come in two categories: they will either involve supervised work, aimed at helping those with disabilities become active members of the employment community, or they will focus more on social skills and self-management, and will thus involve expeditions and outings to parks and other public spaces.

There are also a range of after-school facilities for those with special needs: programs like Holdsworth and Eastern Respite that are always on the lookout for volunteers and paid staff members, not to mention a range of in-home respite services that are aimed to give families much needed help and support.

Ultimately, there is no one ‘way’ to become a member of the community, and whether you want to assist as an educator, a workmate or even as a friend, all possibilities are available to you. But nothing will happen until you start; until you stop putting it off and worrying, and open that first line of contact. In doing so, it won’t be long ’til you find yourself welcomed by a community warmer and more inviting than almost any you’ve ever met.

Lead image: Born This Way, A&E

Joseph Earp is a freelance writer and music critic whose interests include horror cinema, The Drones and cheap regret. He tweets at @TheUnderlook