At 9:15 one weekday morning, I pulled up to a voluminous metal building at our little county airport and let myself in through a metal door. Inside, several people looked up from their seats at a long table, clearly startled. A woman got up quickly and came toward me with a protective air. But she recognized me, and her face relaxed into a smile.
I had come to visit the Monarch Beach Club, a program that cares for Outer Banks men and women with intellectual or developmental disabilities like cerebral palsy or autism. Club members are too old to go to school. They’re the people society cruelly hides away, the ones often greeted by stares or, alternately, turned backs. Without the Beach Club, they would have been isolated at home, most likely being cared for by their parents.
The goal of the Beach Club is to teach members skills for independent living and to help integrate them into the community. Most will never hold jobs. But they can learn to do simple tasks and take pleasure in accomplishing things alone.
As I stood chatting with staff member Patty Marzano, we were approached by a slim, sweet-looking man with closely cropped hair, his arms tightly folded across his chest. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Jan.”
Marzano waited respectfully. The young man screwed up his face in concentration and finally blurted, “I’m Joe.” He smiled at Marzano with an expression of triumph.
I have never been comfortable around people with disabilities. I’m working to change that, but the process is slow. Nowadays, instead of looking quickly away, I try to look into the person’s eyes.
My visit to the Beach Club was my first foray into those waters. Surrounded by nearly a dozen people with disabilities, I had to squelch an impulse to walk out. I was way out of my comfort zone. And that, of course, was the point.
At least I would be able to be outside for most of the visit. That day two of the club members were scheduled to help a local horticulturist repot some seedlings. Joe was to go, along with a woman in her 50s named Dottie. Marzano and I were to supervise them.
Once we were outside, Dottie, a dark-haired woman in a pretty shirt and slacks, walked with a rather loose-limbed gait that contrasted with her otherwise mature appearance. “I’ve planted sixty plants,” she told me—meaning that she had repotted sixty seedlings so far that season.
“I don’t think I’ve planted sixty plants in my whole life,” I said. Everyone laughed.
We made our way across the street to the North Carolina Aquarium. In a shady work area on the grounds, the horticulturist, Kathy Mitchell, waited with flats of native plant seedlings. A petite, capable woman, she greeted us and placed the club members at separate tables. First she demonstrated how to break up the root balls before repotting the seedlings. “You need to really get in there with your knife, get them good and loose.”
Dottie stood comfortably scooping soil into the larger pots, a look of pleasure on her face. She had done so well recently that Kathy had put her in charge of cleaning up. “I get to make sure everything’s neat at the end,” she told me.
Joe worked with quiet concentration, pouring soil carefully around the roots of the seedlings. “You’ve seen these before—remember them?” Kathy asked.
“They’re called false sunflowers. Don’t forget—I need you to trim off the top of each plant.”
Joe extended a pair of scissors and clipped. “Ouch,” he said, speaking for the plant.
My task was to watch and resist the urge to assist when someone struggled with a task. You can’t foster confidence if you step in to help every few moments. Even knowing that, I was surprised by how difficult it was to simply stand by.
And I was surprised by how much I had relaxed. Seeing Dottie and Joe as individuals, reading the delight and frustration on their faces, it was much easier for me to enjoy spending time with them. I watched Joe take another plant from a seed flat and cut at the root balls with a look of concentration. He was entirely focused. He might have been a physician stitching a delicate suture. The wind blew off Croatan Sound, tousling the pines overhead, casting ribbons of light across his face.
I realized that for a moment I had completely forgotten about his disabilities. In fact, all I could see of Joe and Dottie just then was the gorgeous human spark that each of them held deep within. The spark we all share.