A Message From Dottie Adams
The following is a speech given by GCDD staff member Dottie Adams at the Making a Difference Annual Ceremony as she addresses and thanks the audience for honoring her career of advocacy work and her pending retirement.
It is hard to believe that 34 years have gone by ... even the past 10 with the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) have flown by so fast. I guess when you are doing work that you love with people that you appreciate, it isn't a tough gig. I always used to tell my mom that my work wasn't just a job, it was a lifestyle.
I appreciate the acknowledgement tonight. It is nice to know that you have made a difference through your day-to-day efforts. Sometimes we are so in the midst of the forest that it is hard to see the growth and strength of each individual tree and how it has changed over time.
I am also so grateful for the amazing circle of friends that I have. I am so blessed to have such long term relationships with so many people. We have grown up together over the past 25-30 years ... calling on each other for encouragement and support as we have journeyed through work, raising children, supporting aging parents and our own personal and health issues. I am so glad that I grew up in and with this generation of people. We were the children of the 60s, and we believed and still believe that we can change the world.
There is a commercial on the radio that has been playing lately. It is a woman saying that she is still trying to live up to JFK's challenge of "Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country." She states that our generation is still out there with more time left to try to make a difference. That's good. We need to be reminded of that.
We had a storytelling day up in Northwest Georgia earlier in the year. Mary Lou Bourne who works with Michael Smull was there and after hearing my story about my circle of friends, she concluded that my story was about civil disobedience. If you know my circle of friends whom I lovingly call the "directors," you would understand that statement. That made me smile.
The thing that us baby boomers, who came along in the 60s, have is a willingness to challenge the status quo. We WILL push the envelope, bend the rules, take on ANY challenge and question why things are how they are. We don't settle for a simple "no." I love that about our generation, and I hope we can mentor others to share that passion for pushing to make things better or have things make sense. My friend Bruce Anderson has taught me a lot over the past few years about recognizing people's gifts. There are so many "gifted" people in this room and all around Georgia. If we commit to using our gifts, there isn't anything we can't do when we set our mind to it.
I have been so appreciative over the years to have supervisors, like Eric Jacobson, who gave me room to be creative. My college degrees were in education, but I knew I wouldn't last a year in the classroom because it would be too restrictive and I would have to get outside the box. I have worked in the same service system that everyone else has with its rules and restrictions. But when we commit to do the right thing for people, then we find a way. Being person-centered gives us the authority to make things work for each and every person. We must hold to that standard.
I have had so many teachers along the way that have helped shape how I think about things, how I do my work and what things I truly value. My best teachers have been people with disabilities and their families. If and when we pay attention to what they are telling us, we usually get things right. I just want to highlight a few people's stories and what they taught me.
I got a call from the Greene County School System back in 1985 asking if I could help find an institution in Georgia for a 15-year-old girl, Gabriel, that the school system had been funding to be in a facility in New Jersey for the past seven years. I drove down to Greensboro to meet her family. Her mom, Julia, was an amazing woman and without a doubt wanted Gabriel to come home. She came across as being very negative during planning meetings.
She taught me to ask new and different questions. I learned to say, "What would it take for you to feel comfortable with Gabriel doing this or that." She could always tell me the details that we needed to attend to in order for things to work right for Gabriel. Julia got cancer when she was 36-years-old and died when she was 37. We were the same age. She left me a letter that her family gave me after she had died and she asked me to make sure Gabriel never lived in a nursing home or institution. She taught me about making a real life commitment and to not take a single day for granted because we never know when our time will come.
I took her to a conference in Washington,DC a few months before she died. On the way to the airport she told me her doctor told her she couldn't go but that she wanted to. I told her I would be her partner in crime and that she could be sick in DC just as well as she could be sick in Georgia. (See...there is that civil disobedience).
She needed to go hear about possibilities to help her dream about what she wanted for her daughter's future. Her last year taught me all about family support and what that could and should mean. It didn't have much to do with Gabriel. It was going over to the hospital to iron her bed jacket so she would look pretty when her husband came to visit. It was taking her to see Chuck Davis and the African American Dance Ensemble so that she could really feel alive. It was being with her whether we said anything or not. It was helping her hang in there so that she could witness Gabriel's high school graduation. She died two days later. I learned that it is about taking the journey with people. We can't always make things better, but we can make sure people don't feel alone.
Another teacher of mine was Molly. When I first met Molly, she had a little toddler named Brian. He had delays and she had been told that he might not walk and would probably never run. She was persistent and kept working with him. Molly had some mental health issues and found it hard to trust people. She often had DFCS "watching" and threatening to take her son away.
There were times when Molly was having a tough time emotionally. I would offer to let Brian come spend the night at my house. He seemed to like hanging around my sons, and it gave Molly a much needed break to "regroup." When Molly was pregnant with her second child, she asked me to give her a ride to her midwife appointment. I did, and to my surprise, they said she was in labor and we were heading over to the hospital to have a baby. What a blessing to hold Molly's hand and to see Danielle come into the world.
During Molly's pregnancy, she was put in a tough position to have to stop taking her mental health medications so that they would not harm the baby. Her emotional state was up and down as she battled the choice she had made to protect her child. Soon after Danielle was born, Molly went back into the hospital to get her medications regulated. Danielle and Brian came to my house to stay for a few days. If the system had done things the way it typically did, then DFCS would have put the kids in a temporary foster home. If Molly had family to support her, then they might have kept the kids. But instead, Molly had someone she trusted and who she felt comfortable with keeping her kids for a few days.
Jane Wells, a friend of mine from Minnesota, had come down to do some consulting with us. She was a little taken aback that I had an infant with me at work and that no one at the office thought too much about it. We all just took turns holding her, feeding her, changing her and oooing and aaahhhing over her. Jane said that never would have happened in Minnesota, but she saw how it made sense for this family.
I saw Brian last fall ... that little toddler has grown into a handsome young man about 6'5" tall. I wish we could go back and talk to the doctors who were so pessimistic about his future abilities because he represented the US in the Special Olympic International Games as a runner.
Molly validated for me things that my mom had taught me growing up – be kind; treat people the way you would want to be treated; listen; protect children's hearts and spirits and do the right thing.
Tanya was a teenage girl who had been struggling for several years. She had been suicidal and hadn't been out of a facility for more than 48 hours in two years when we were asked to develop a living arrangement for her. She also had intellectual disabilities. We set up a home for her and it required two on one staffing. She could be very aggressive and we had to make sure the environment was safe for everyone involved. That was the system approach.
We paid a lot of attention to details for Tanya. There were times when we needed to be able to give staff a break, so Tanya would come to my house for the weekend. It was those times when I would get a glimpse of what life could and should be for her.
Yes, I did put away all my knives in the kitchen so that she wouldn't be tempted to hurt herself. Yes, we would go by Michael's and she could pick out an art project that she wanted to work on. Yes, she had a room where she had privacy and she could make her choices about when she got up, whether she took a shower, what she wanted to wear and when she went to bed.
She loved my golden retriever and all the attention that the dog demanded of her. She also loved my mom who lived with me. Mom was in her 80s and often needed help. Tanya was the one who would volunteer her assistance. She loved to feel needed. Her weekend visits were fun. I saw glimpses of greatness in her as she shared who she wanted to be. That was the human approach.
Each of these stories is true. Each of these people meant so much to me. Being with people is different than "services." I would have flunked the social work class where they taught the principle of setting boundaries and not being too personal with people – I'm glad.
The thing that disturbs me most about our service system today is that it is too focused on keeping people OUT of services who might not be eligible. Our goal was to always make it as easy as possible for people to get services and supports they needed, whether they were formal paid services or informal community supports.
Life is hard enough for families without having the system that is set up to support you make your life even more difficult. I say if the State was trying to create the most complicated, disjointed, fragmented and un-navigate-able system, then they have succeeded. There are too many excuses made about what the system can and can't do. Challenge that! Remember to be like a child of the 60s. Don't ask for permission. Do the right thing and then ask for forgiveness if you have to.
We all need to recommit to doing what each of us can to make life easier and to share our gifts to help people get what they need. That is when we are about being of service and being our best. Thank you so very much for tonight.
- Dottie Adams