“Miracles” and Miracles – AbilityPlus

My friends Sue Tatem and David Hauser are involved with a program called AbilityPlus, Inc, and I am so impressed with it that I wanted to tell you about it. From my understanding of theology, it does two types of work: “Miracles” and Miracles.

The first type of miracle, (“miracle” in quotes) is some thing  we used to dream about when I was a kid. It’s the kind of miracle that is like the iPod or the cellular phone – something dreamed of in science fiction and old Star Trek reruns. When Star Trek first came out, the idea that you could communicate with something the size of an electric razor was just something “those people” would do in the future. No one really believed we’d ever actually see it, but it was fun to imagine.  In real life, you could find the phone by following the cord that attached it to the wall and you made it work by dialing the numbers on a dial.

Computers ran spaceships in Houston, so you could imagine them doing incredible things, but sitting on your lap was not one of them. Something that worked as fast as the thing I’m now typing on took up a city block in Springfield, Mass. and was shared in milliseconds connected by a phone line. Just the keyboard part was bigger than a desktop computer is now.  The point is that at least as far back as Mark Twain’s   “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, we have understood some of what people in the past called  “magic” or “miracles” is actually things humans don’t understand yet, or haven’t invented yet.  AbilityPlus deals in those kinds of “miracles” all the time – the kind of thing that lets a person missing a leg put on a graphite spring-like thing that replaces the leg so that they can ski. I don’t know who invented such things, and I don’t really care. They are just so cool.  Last week, there was an event in New Britain, near where I live. It was the championship of something I’d never heard of — “Sled Hockey”. It’s hockey as I used to know it, but with a twist: handicapped folks do it from sleds that didn’t exist years ago.  (You’ll note that there’s no such thing as “Toboggan Hockey” which we could have invented in my day, but it would have required pulling ropes like we were slaves and there would have been no independent steering among other problems)

The fact that things like the Paralympics (the Olympic games for disabled folks) exist at all is unimaginable to me in much the way that The X Games are unimaginable – bikes that are so lightweight they fly and so strong they can land in one piece, skateboards and roller luge made out of new materials and designs lead to bravery that defies logic. I can see it happen and I still can’t believe it. I have been on crutches a few times in my life and those things hurt , so the idea that someone can use a variation of them without being in agony amazes me.  Maybe these athletes are in pain, but it sure doesn’t seem it.

Then there’s the fact that these people are athletes at all amazes me. I can’t make it down a mountain on skis without falling a hundred times. I can’t run great distances without stopping, and yet there are Paralympics events like marathons.  And the technology that lets people do this stuff is absolutely amazing.  Who dreams up this stuff? This is all, as far as I can tell, a “miracle” of the science-fiction variety. Every once in a while we humans put our minds to making good things, instead of things that kill.  Their miracle gives me hope. Every once in a while, we make things that actually give life meaning, rather than plastic objects sold in vending machines to be thrown our ten minutes later.  The idea that someone would want to create gizmos like this, that someone else might dream of using them, and that they would do all kinds of unimaginable things with them are all miracles in-and-of-themselves. To watch them in action as they execute some kind of spinney thing while rotating head over heels would have been considered amazing when I was a kid, and downright magical or miraculous a century ago, But here they are, and Dave, Sue, and all the other people at AbilityPlus know about them, know what fits who, and what a person might do with them in all kinds of conditions.

But as miraculous as these things are, there is another real miracle that takes place. People’s lives change. People’s spirits are healed. People who couldn’t imagine even talking to each other are connecting and becoming the best of friends, people thought about across the miles, people that hearts ache for and break for when they leave or misfortune hits.

In the days when “liberation theology” was all the rage, there was a type of theology written by people like Veterans for Peace who understood Christ from the perspective of their experience as soldiers.  The long and short of such a theology is this: All soldiers die for our sins.  All of the greed and self-interest that causes countries to go to war, all of the willingness to spend billions destroying things just to see if we can, all of our fascination with violence causes us to put men and women in harm’s way.  They die – or get injured — because we live the ways we choose to live, in whatever ways that means, because of whatever evils live in some dictator’s soul or some corporate boardroom where bombs are made for profit.

In the same way, poor city children die daily because some people want to be rich and live far enough away from them that they don’t have to care. People born with handicaps suffer and die because we live the belief that we’re “normal” and they’re not.  In point of fact, if you subtracted all the people who aren’t “normal” (for whatever reasons) from the overall population, all ten people who would be left would feel strange themselves.

Still, we choose to live this way as a society and plenty of people suffer the slings and arrows, the slights and the deaths that come from it. White folks don’t talk to Black folks or – in the city – some types of Asian folks. Kids don’t respect adults. Adults don’t respect kids. The poor who are on welfare seldom meet the wealthy who determine what they have.  We put away the elderly in nursing homes, we don’t talk to our mentally ill, and people who are not “perfect” physically get mocked for having zits, teeth with gaps, oily hair, unbranded sneakers,” unibrows”, obesity, plus race, gender, orientation and so many other things. And, after we don’t talk to each other, we can’t figure why we fight so much among ourselves.

For all of the little deaths we put ourselves through and the actual deaths we send our soldiers to, the world suffers. Ability+ will have none of it. While we’re putting kids in special-ed classes and their peers are mocking them as “SPEDs”, Ability+ makes them feel like the “somebody” they actually are.  While many people are afraid of the developmentally delayed, Ability+ is teaching them to ski, or snowboard or just have fun being out in the world. Their lives are changed.

But then something else happens. Our lives are changed as we learn there’s nothing to be afraid of. We learn that a kid in the classroom runs out of space, but on a mountain we all get some perspective. The person whom we shun for not having all their body parts comes out of their house and turns out to be pretty special. The person whose spirit we killed in other places begins to live again. They experience resurrection and we begin to have hope again.  That is a miracle.  This renewal of souls is something only God can provide but something we participate in. It is something we activate like putting two new chemicals together, but the burst of energy that is generated provides an unexpected awe.  From the potential energy that was there comes the kinetic energy that is the miracle of rebirth, resurrection, or recovery.

When David and I saw each other a while ago for the first time in years, he didn’t much talk about the gizmos or the skiing, the views from the mountains or the budget required to make it all happen. He talked about inner-city kids bringing cheer to people who lived for their business. He talked about insular people learning to reach out to people that they never would have considered before.  This was what he found exciting. This is what made his day. The fact that he got to watch it happen and be a part of it all was more exciting to him than whatever direct benefit he got from working at AbilityPlus.

AbilityPlus runs at least two different sites – one near Boston where David works and one in Vermont, near Mt. Snow that Sue is related to.  There may be more, but those two places do the best kind of miracles – they use our “miracles” to make more and more miracles. They build bridges of community between people that never would have known each other existed. By doing so, they keep the spirits alive of those involved, they re-energize hope in a world which badly needs it and, yes, it provides a form of resurrection for people we as a society have hurt.  Who knew that by letting people ski or by helping them play hockey or inviting challenged kids to breathe crisp air on slopes that challenge everybody that we could undo sin itself? Apparently, the people at AbilityPlus did. As David, Sue, and all the people who work or volunteer, teach, or give their resources to these experiences know, the miracles just keep coming.

If you want to be involved with AbilityPlus or another organization of Adaptive Sports like them in some way, check out AbilityPlus Adaptive Sports online at http://www.abilityplus.org  and find links to all kinds of ways you can take part in miracles.




[BTW, this is not a paid advertisement. I get nothing from AbilityPlus but the knowledge that I’m spreading the good word about what I see as a great organization with great people doing great things — the very purpose of “Because It Matters”]



The Untried Solution: Regionalizing Connecticut Schools and more

“You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’” — George Bernard Shaw, famously quoted by Robert F. Kennedy

George Harris, the pastor of South Church, and I were talking today as we walked in Hartford’s Walk Against Hunger and we got to talking about how much it costs to raise a child when they are doing well in some parts of their lives. His daughter seems to really excel at hockey (of all things for a little girl born in Hawaii) and my daughter is going to the world competition of Odyssey of the Mind in Ames, Iowa this year — something we had accepted as a possibility when we signed her up, but — now a reality — costs so much that the group has to fund-raise in order to go.  Neither of us remembered a lot of fund-raising in school when we were kids, but we both acknowledged it as a reality for today’s kids. In order for our children to become their best selves, we are going to have to spend a lot of money. It’s just a given. We’ll just have to figure out how and do the best we can to make that happen.

This reminded me of a good friend of mine in Massachusetts whose school district no longer prints report cards, but e-mails them. Parents have to print them, sign then, and send them back which caused me to think about other costs of schooling. (I should say here that it may be “and e-mail them back”. I’m not totally sure. You still have to print them, though, if you want to have a copy in front of you to review with your kid — and that assumes you have the computer, printer and ink to make that happen).  “Schools”, I said, “wouldn’t have to save money on little things like printing report cards if we funded them well enough”.

George then reminded me of a discussion I recently managed as part of South Church’s “Poverty Forum”, put together by our intern  Emily Goodnow in which local leaders said that there was a simple solution, but no one dare utter it’s name: “regionalization”.  Apparently, in other states, school budgets are created regionally — rather than town by town — to help save on administrative and other costs. The side effect of this kind of thing is fairer budgets among schools. Apparently Connecticut doesn’t do this because people like their little hamlets and burbs. The point of life here (as it is elsewhere) is to make enough money to move to the suburbs — so your kids can have good schools, among other things.

The problem is that city schools can’t afford updated books, let alone the latest technology. Teachers buy pencils for their kids and are told to avoid making copies because the school can’t afford to buy a new one. This means that kids with outdated books and few handouts are supposed to compete in the global marketplace without the tools they need to do so.  This is more pronounced and stark in Connecticut because of odd things like Bridgeport (a city that was once bankrupt) is in the middle of Fairfield County (the wealthiest county in America).  In this case, the geographic difference between a a poorly supported education and the “school of the future” can be 500 yards or so.  Hartford County, where I live, is second in the state to Fairfield County and it has New Britain which looks like Bridgeport does in the financial sense.  Next to New Britain are Farmington, Berlin, West Hartford and Kensington — all excellent schools. New Britain has the books and lack of computers I mentioned earlier and the have the Hospital for Special Care — which brings families with special education challenges to New Britain. New Britain, then, tries to do more with far less and — not surprisingly–  fails to impress when the state shows off its school numbers.

Now, I have no moral high ground here — my children get a good education in one of the neighboring towns. I didn’t even understand about schools in New Britain until I attended this forum — at least not consciously, though I used to work in Bridgeport. I’m not being pedantic here. What astounds me, though, is that there’s a huge problem and the state’s governor is trying to address it in a massive political fight with the teacher’s unions, etc, but the best option, according to people who know, isn’t even on the table.  Why? Apparently, it’s political suicide to mention it. Not only isn’t there the political will to do it, people here seem to actively hate the idea. But, since I have no political career to worry about, I want to be the first on my block to say we should regionalize Connecticut schools. As a therapist I see people all the time who have solutions to their problems that they don’t want to try — and their families fall apart because they do.  I just shake my head and point out the solution as at least an option. “Got a problem? Here’s a solution that works for a lot of people”, I say. It seems so logical to me, especially when people know intuitively what the solution is.

While I’m at it, I should mention another untried solution: Single Payer Health Insurance.  My friend Cathi posted a graph on Facebook the other day that showed the number of people who administrate health insurance has gone up exponentially while the number of actual doctors has barely risen at all. This is why we spend so much for health care — we’re paying people to tell doctors how to do their job! Now, I don’t know that the government is going to do a better job at it than companies do now, but it sure seems a lot better to have one plan to do it instead of fifty competing plans. And while people fight over “Obamacare”, it seems to me that the best idea isn’t even on the table.  This is no way to live. Our families — both literally and figuratively — fall apart if we don’t at least consider the option that has the best chance of succeeding. It’s like people fighting over the clothes at a discount store and tearing them to shreds while the one that works best is at the expensive store — but you only have to buy it once.

Anyway, I hate untried solutions and I encourage you, wherever you see one, to try it out or at least consider it. Maybe things would get better if you gave it a try.