The Gift of Purpose
By Marianne Valls
My mother had given my life but Heightened Independence and Progress (hip) gave my life purpose and direction. I was born with cerebral palsy and although I earned a college degree, I thought that employment was impossible. All I could see were my limitations rather than focusing on all the things that learned along the way.
But that all changed in 1989 when I was volunteering at United Cerebral Palsy Center (UCP) of Hudson County, I was asked to attend a meeting concerning the creation of a new organization designed to help people with disabilities integrate into the community. Already established in Bergan County, Hudson hip’s mission was to introduce the Independent Movement to Hudson County.
For a while I divided my time between the Center and hip, but soon I began spending more time at this new organization. It was the first time in my life that I saw people with disabilities taking charge of their own lives. They worked, had active social lives and lived quite independently.
At the time I was married, but unfortunately, it did not give me the freedom I desired. When I was married, I saw myself as a helpless creature having no choice but to rely on a man to support me. (Please note my ex-husband was a good man. The fault of our break-up was entirely mine.) However, getting involved with hip, made me realize that I could have goals and a career beyond the duties of being a wife and homemaker.
In the beginning there were only two of us working at Hudson hip. Bob Greenberg was the first part-time coordinator of the office and he suggested that I spend more time volunteering for hip. At that time hip was housed in the office of the Hudson County branch of the NJ Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (DVRS). Bob thought that by volunteering the rehabilitation counselors could see my skills, which perhaps, would lead them to recommend me for employment. This made sense so I started to work on office tasks like filing, coordinating schedules and mailings It may sound silly but in those days those days I was even afraid to use the copier.
Soon Bob left for a full time job and Maryanne Vacca replaced him. Maryanne was totally blind so I became her reader. Much to my surprise she learned to understand my speech which, up until then I thought unrecognizable by anyone but family and close friends. hip helped me find a voice which up to that point had been silenced by fear. Those who know me may find this strange since I’m known for speaking my mind, however, there was a small voice inside me that wondered whether people were really understanding me. It was one of the first of many things that my employment at Hudson hip did for me. It did what Centers for independent Living are supposed to do; start one’s journey toward empowerment.
Eventually, MaryAnn left to marry and have a child and Kathy Wood took over to become coordinator of Hudson hip. It was still the two of us and since Kathy is visually impaired I was still a reader. But now there were other tasks to do that required hand coordination which was challenging for me. Kathy didn’t seem to mind and soon neither did I; all that mattered was that we got the job done.
When Kathy went on medical leave I was left in charge of the office leaving me responsible for everything including answering the telephone. Admittedly answering the phone is one of my least favorite things to do, however, the call I answered led to the start of a lifelong friendship with Marily Gonzalez who joined the staff. She would later assume her current role as the Executive Director of the Hudson Branch.
Our office family was completed by Maria Smith who was hired as an independent living specialist with a heavy emphasis on clerical work. My cerebral palsy affects my motor skills and prevents me from doing tasks which require fine hand control so Maria and I worked as a team with her take my dictation when writing by hand or typing became difficult for me.
Though the years, my job evolved into writing flyers, press releases, and a quarterly column for the newsletter. I would also go to health fairs and conferences on behalf of hip with Marily or Cathy. I was a member of the hip team and I got the chance to offer my opinions on disability issues and develop strategies for our consumers. Our workplace was filled with friendship, laughter and good will as we worked to remove barriers that prevent people from leading independent lives.
On one occasion Marily had been assigned to organize a conference with an emphasis on issues facing the Hispanic/Latino community. She was given the task of planning the meal and asked me for some advice about the menu. I emphasized that the meal should not include rice since many people find it difficult to manage. I still smile when I recall the panic in Marily’s eyes as she rushed from the podium to apologize to me because the committee overruled her suggestion and rice was the main attraction. It was just one of those things but Marily was concerned that I’d be upset that my advice went unheeded.
While a paycheck is important work gives us so much more. It enhances one’s self-esteem and self-worth and enables people to make social contacts that can sustain us for a lifetime. Even though technology has changed the workplace in many ways by leveling the field for people with disabilities it’s the relationships that make the difference. Work is who we are and how we are viewed by others. It completes the life experience and I’m happy that I got to experience that in a place like hip.