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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Six Months of Transformation Described in Five Minutes or Less

Graduating Partners in Policymaking Class of 2012

Well, it’s all done!  Six months of classes in Salem, countless hours of reading, stepping outside my comfort zone to interview leaders in the community, and time spent on examining my own assumptions and beliefs on disability.  Saturday I graduated from Partners in Policymaking, a challenging leadership and advocacy course that was sponsored and administered by the Arc of Oregon and Oregon Council on Developmental Disabilities.  I am a very different person than I was six months ago—for the better! 

Prior to the graduation ceremony, each of us in the class were required to put our practiced public speaking skills into action and give a speech, no longer than five minutes in length, that encapsulated our experiences in PIP, as well as what we would be doing in the future with our new skills.  What a challenge!  How do I sum up a life-changing experience that so profoundly affected my family, myself and as a result, my community into just five minutes?   I could talk for an hour about what PIP has meant to me.  Well, it took me until 12:30 AM the day of my speech to finally cram it all together into a condensed version and here’s what I came up with:

The four of us from Southern Oregon
My name is Heather Molzer and I'm from Medford. I heard about Partners in Policymaking about three days before the application deadline and a scrambled to get all the required information together to apply.  It sounded like an incredible program and I was struggling, as a fairly new full-time homemaker with how I could be a better mother to my sons.  I knew I was missing some vital piece of the puzzle when it came to advocating for my children, but I had no idea what that piece even looked like.

When I got my acceptance letter and the first session material, I was very excited.  I was challenged with the reading material and before even attending the first session I wondered if this program was actually going to be a good fit for me.  That first session went beyond breaking down barriers and assumptions. I remember calling my husband at each break and just sobbing into the phone.  I remember coming home from that weekend, trying to disseminate the information I had absorbed to my husband but mostly succeeding in more sobbing.

After a few days when I could a hold a short conversation concerning disability without turning into a blubbering cry-baby, I sat down with my son, Cainan.  As we prepared for him to transition into a new self-contained, 3rd - 6th grade blended class at a school even further away than the one he was currently attending, I asked him if it was what he wanted.  I asked him if he wanted to be in a class like he had been, with kids in 3rd through 6th grade, who have disabilities or if he would like to be in a regular class with kids his age who do not have disabilities.  To my surprise, within moments he had a definitive answer and it was to be in a regular class with kids his age.  Further, he wanted to go to the same school as his younger brother, our neighborhood school.

Thus began my journey into the world of Partners in Policymaking and affective advocacy for my son.  That piece I had been was understanding that Cainan's disability didn't define him, that he had more in common with typical kids than he had differences and that he deserved to be a part of a community that accepted him as a whole person.  And that was just what I got from the first weekend!

I have to thank my husband, who has been a tremendous supporter of this process; who has done his best to listen through the tears after each session about all of the amazing information I learned; who has encouraged me, helped me brainstorm, presented a united front with me through IEPs and Placement meetings.  I also have to thank my mother and my in-laws who have given up one of their weekends each month to watch our boys, as well as multiple hours as I toured sheltered workshops, met with community leaders or legislators and completed tasks inspired or assigned by Partners in Policymaking.  I couldn't have completed this journey without their support.

Let me end by saying not only will Cainan be attending our neighborhood school next year with his brother, in a general education setting with the supports necessary for him to be successful, but my perspective on community building and acceptance for those who experience a disability has so radically changed that I have grown far beyond just advocating for my own children.  This summer, I am involved in the organization of a huge volunteer based community service event that will be taking place.  While numerous projects will be serving all aspects of the communities in the Rogue Valley, most require the ability to complete manual labor, outdoors, in the middle of July.  I wanted to have an opportunity available as part of this event that is completely accessible, so that people of any ability can come together as valuable members of their community and serve in an integral way.  A project like this wouldn't have occurred to me six months ago.  Six months ago, I would have argued with anyone that said Cainan belonged anywhere besides a safe, segregated classroom.  Six months ago I was trying to put together a puzzle that didn't have all the pieces.  I am so grateful that PIP gave me the pieces to create a stunning picture I had never even imagined.

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