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The Broad Margins of Abilities United

Abilities United Touches 2,300 Community Members Every Year. Has It Touched Yours?

Five months into my second pregnancy, I went into labor. Most people would be terrified, but I was a pro at complicated pregnancies.  I had one with my first born (who arrived six weeks early) and he turned out fine. As a glass-half full kind of gal, I knew I could do it again. 

“Don’t worry,”  I told my clients at the advertising agency where I had recently been promoted to vice president. “I’ll just work from home. You won’t even know I’m gone."

That lasted a week until my doctor said the stress from the office was putting my baby at risk. 

“Your job is to gestate. Forget everything else. Just live in the present,” she said. So, I put my paying job on hold and resigned myself to four months of nothing but monotony and late-night worrying.

I read books, played as best I could with my young son, and watched too much daytime TV. One month in and I was at my wit’s end. I begged the doctor to let me out of my cage. Swimming, I suggested to her, would benefit me and the baby. Reluctantly, she agreed. Three times a week, a friend or neighbor drove me across town to the Betty Wright Swim Center.

I spent hours in the water. The first fifteen minutes I swam laps. The rest of the time I let the water simply carry me. My baby, a girl, and I shared a collective womb. As she floated, so did I. 

In time, I came to know the regulars at the pool. There were the three octogenarians who met every morning to swim their laps. They’d been doing it for years, through cancer and hip replacements, divorce and death. I laughed at their bawdy jokes and was grateful for their kind attentions and good advice.

After weeks of seeing each other all those mornings, one of them shyly asked if she could touch my expanding belly. I will never forget her tentative fingers as the stroked the melon of my stomach. 

“It’s a miracle,” she said with tears in her eyes. Her children were grown and old and her grandchildren were beginning to have children of their own. She’d seen it all and yet still she marveled at my pregnancy, as though mine were the first she’d every encountered. 

I also came to know some of the children who participated in the swim classes. Five and six year olds filled the pool with laughter. Each of them had some measure of disability, but nothing was going to hold them back from having fun. There were others with deeper issues who needed one, two, sometimes three, attendants to help them experience what we all needed, the weightlessness of water.

Those days at the swim center were the first time I regularly interacted with the disabled. Growing up, I had had a friend who’s brother was deaf and another who lived in a home for children with special needs. Back then, we separated the disabled from the able as though they had nothing to give, nothing we could learn.

Thankfully, that has changed. Now, the disabled are mainstreamed in our schools, work in meaningful jobs, and participate in our communities. 

This past weekend, I celebrated the Betty Wright Swim Center and its role in my own life by attending the 20th annual Abilities United Authors Luncheon. The luncheon was the brainchild of Carol C. Friedman, a long-time Palo Alto resident and one of AU’s first development directors. It has grown over the years from a respectable 300 attendees at its first event to nearly 700 squeezed together on Saturday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. 

You may know Abilities United by its former name, Community Association for Rehabilitation (CAR). In 2008, the organization reinvented itself to reflect the underlying philosophy of community inclusion and to recognize that everybody has abilities, some are simply different than others.

My table-mate at the luncheon, AU board member Jere King, explained it best. “It is inspiring to see the diversity in our community when people of all abilities are given the chance to contribute.” She’s right. 

We heard the story of Eriks Ramans who has been benefitting from the good work of Abilities United for nearly forty years. He has Downs Syndrome, but he hasn’t let that stop him. He is, as his father Andris shared, “a tax paying, union card holding member of our society.” Without AU, he may not have been.

During her talk, guest author Maxine Hong Kingston quoted Thoreau by saying, “I love a broad margin to my life.” But she didn’t quote the line he wrote before that one in his seminal work, Walden,“There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands.” 

 It reminded me of those months so many years ago, when I spent my days floating, living in the constant present, with no work to show for myself, except the bloom of my belly and the hope of the future. Without AU, my daughter may not have been.

Joan Meyers November 07, 2011 at 06:09 PM
Being Volunteer Coordinator at Abilities United, I am always moved by the stories people are willing to share about their experiences here. It is a wonderful place, with a wonderful history and, hopefully, and exciting future-as the society grows more open to looking at possibilities for people of all abilities.Thank you for your touching story.
Lisen Stromberg November 07, 2011 at 07:53 PM
Joan, I had the opportunity to meet a number of your incredible volunteers. As Betty Wright said, "A day without helping others is a day wasted." Best, Lisen
Abilities United November 08, 2011 at 04:49 AM
Thank you Lisen for capturing the spirit of the Authors Luncheon and Abilities United in such a perfect, descriptive manner. We've received a lot of positive feedback on your story including "This is a beautiful, inspired story and tribute to the mission and work of Abilities United and the pool. It gave me chills just reading it -- a very emotional piece that most all can relate to.", "I just got teary reading this fantastic story. What a gem." "What a great article". On behalf of everyone at Abilities United, thank you so much for sharing your story and capturing the spirit of Abilities United in such a meaningful way. All the bests, Wendy Kuehnl
Lisen Stromberg November 08, 2011 at 05:10 AM
Wendy and all at AU, Thank you for your kind words and the good work you do. Best, Lisen
Abilities United December 22, 2011 at 11:29 PM
Hi Lisen, just want to wish you a very happy holiday season! Also thank you and everyone at Patch Palo Alto for the follow up story on the success of the Authors Luncheon! http://paloalto.patch.com/articles/local-charity-sets-record-fundraising All the best to your and your family in 2012! Wendy Kuehnl
Lisen Stromberg December 22, 2011 at 11:42 PM
And to you, Wendy - and of course all of those who benefit from the good work of Abilities United. Lisen

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