Disability mentorship program creates lasting bonds

Garrett (left) and Jeremy
Sharing some of his experiences as a mentor for a teenager with a disability, Jeremy Lawrence recalls specific memories with his mentee Garrett. He remembers playing Wii “Mario Cart,” collecting as many tickets as possible at Dave & Busters, and training for a “Walk & Roll” by zigzagging through the swing set at the park near Garrett’s house. More so than the memories, what remains of the experience for Jeremy is the friendship that developed between Jeremy and Garrett (pictured here. Garrett is on the left).

Jeremy and Garrett met through Access Living’s Disability Justice Mentoring Collective (DJ/MC). Access Living, a disability rights and service organization that serves Chicago, launched the mentoring program in 2010 with the goal of connecting young adult mentors with middle school students and high school students with disabilities. Access Living created the project under the premise that “finding and naming the disability experience in relation to our overall stories as human beings is an important process for social change.”

Candace Coleman, Access Living’s Youth Community Development Organizer coordinates the DJ/MC Program. “I think that a lot of young people with disabilities don’t have adults with disabilities to identify with,” Coleman said. When a young person is matched with an adult with a disability who has experience with navigating social and physical barriers, and who is a proud to identify as a member of the disability community, there is opportunity for a strong connection between the mentor and mentee. Yet, the DJ/MC is not limited to people with disabilities. Young adults who are not disabled are also encouraged to get involved as mentors. “Whether we are disabled or not, we all have unique experiences to share,” Coleman said. “And we all have the capacity to grow from new experiences.” Matching a mentor without a disability to a young person with a disability provides an opportunity for each to learn from the other, to forge alliances outside of the community, and to broaden disability awareness.

Over the past few years, DJ/MC has forged strong mentoring connections, and strong friendships, including that between Jeremy and Garrett. Jeremy joined the program in 2012. Talking about his history as a volunteer, Jeremy explains, “Growing up I volunteered quite a bit. That had gradually evolved to only making donations to causes I cared about. In thinking about all this I realized I really wanted to get involved again. I missed being connected to the people. Donating money is very important but hands-on involvement with leads to a sense of community.” Jeremy, who has a history of epilepsy, was connected with Garrett, who has a rare degenerative disability called PMD. As a result of the disability, he uses a wheelchair and often visits the doctor. In the midst of full time care, Garrett plays wheelchair soccer, trains for events such as the “Walk and Roll,” goes to school, and does all the things most any teenager would do. As a mentor, Jeremy became a part of Garrett’s life. Jeremy and his friends supported Garrett at the “Walk and Roll,” which raised money and awareness for PMD, he went to his birthday party, and he went to his middle school graduation. Jeremy was surprised by how much he got out of the program. For him, it was more than a mentorship. “Personally, I’ve found the program incredibly rewarding,” he said. “I cannot imagine anything that could replace it – the friendship or the program.”

Through the mentorship, he connected with Garrett and with Garrett’s family. At one point in the program, Garrett went to the hospital for a planned surgery. The surgery didn’t go as expected and there were some complications. “They called me to update me about this,” Jeremy said. “I was so glad to still be involved on any level. That is how real friendship works--you are there on the good days and you are there on the bad days too.”

The next session of DJ/MC begins February 9, though Access Living will continue to recruit and accept mentors and mentees throughout the winter and fall. College students and young adults over the age of 25 are encouraged to apply, and young people with disabilities between the ages of 13-18 are eligible to participate as mentees.

As the DJMC gears up for 2013, Jeremy encourages others to get involved. He says the program is a great opportunity. On paper, the program is about mentorship. But once two people are connected, Jeremy says “there is a world of possibilities.”

Candace Coleman
Community Development Organizer – Racial Justice