This week I took my nine-year old to a regularly scheduled appointment at a clinic in our community. We have been to this clinic many times and have established an excellent team of professionals who literally keep me attached to our state. If it were not for their awesomeness, I would probably move again. (I love traveling and tend to get restless when pushed to settle down in one spot for more than 3 years.) I’d like to blame my desire to move on growing up in the military and then later working for the military as a civilian. But the truth is, I think it’s just deeply embedded in my own personal DNA.
The day we arrived at the clinic, I saw that one of our local librarian outreach representatives was present. The clinic encourages literacy and routinely hosts the librarian so that she can promote the monthly calendar of activities. The libraries do a great job of offering programs for infants, toddlers, and school age children. When children arrive at the clinic, they are treated to whatever fun things the librarian brings in her rolling suitcase. Unzip that case, and magic occurs. The children can entertain themselves while they wait to be called for their appointment.
On the day we arrived, there were large Duplo blocks available for stacking and tumbling. Books of all sorts were presented for viewing and discussion. The librarian happily greeted each child and parent as they came through the door. She often rose from her chair near the center of the activities and approached parents with the monthly calendar of activities. Sometimes she even asked the child or parent where they lived to determine the closest library based on their residence. It was a wonderful presentation of community outreach that everyone seemed to enjoy.
As someone who is very passionate about advocacy and community outreach, I found myself smiling and longing for the days when I was a community outreach coordinator. I loved doing exactly what the librarian was doing. She was able to connect with the children and their parents in a brief moment, and she was doing it so well! And then….the unthinkable happened. Now, in all fairness, it may have already been time to pack up and leave. It was getting close to the end of an hour toward the later part of the afternoon. However, the timing for what transpired was extremely unfortunate for many reasons. Figuring out how to approach the librarian outreach representative would be a little challenging, given that the entire waiting room happened to be packed.
The librarian had just handed out a few calendars, when a mom walked in with her son. He appeared to have challenges with mobility, and his mom held him by the hand to guide him toward the front desk. He may have been middle school age. The young man also appeared to be a bit reluctant about coming into a clinic filled with people. It was pretty busy, and I know from my own experiences with children who have sensory issues that the environment could be overwhelming. I watched as the librarian waited for the mom to check in at the front desk. I waited to see if she would take a moment for the mom and son to find a quiet spot away from the busy areas. (There are a few quieter spaces available around the corner.) I continued to wait to see when the librarian would approach that mom and her son. It didn’t happen.
At first I could feel my heart rate increasing. I was shocked that this was happening. I was upset and indignant. I perceived that the librarian was intentionally avoiding that mom and son! She averted her gaze and looked away. She busied herself with handing out calendars to other parents. Within a few short moments, the librarian began packing up her suitcase on wheels. She tried to hand out a few stickers to nearby children, but again avoided the mom and son. She was just getting ready to leave when I asked, “Excuse me, but did (child’s name I had heard) get a sticker yet? She looked a bit surprised and responded, “Oh! I thought they went around the corner!” At that moment, the mom and her son walked by again, so she approached them and offered a sticker. Mom accepted it. She still was not given a calendar.
I approached the mom and offered my calendar to her. “Hi! Have you received one of these yet? They have some great activities!” The mom accepted the calendar and thanked me. I decided to talk to the librarian before she headed out the door. First, I leaned close to allow her to hear what I was about to whisper. “Excuse me, but I’d like to offer to help the library if you ever need someone to adapt the library programs for individuals with special needs. That is something I love doing and would be happy to assist. Here is my card where I can be reached.” I then asked for another calendar, which she happily provided.
There are a few thoughts I have about what occurred that day:
- If I had confronted the woman about her disregard for that mother, I may have opened myself up for misinterpreting her motives. It may have actually been time for her to go. Perhaps her lack of comfort with the child’s mobility prevented her from approaching the family. We don’t know her history, so we cannot truly judge her interactions (or lack of interactions).
- Aggressively pointing out the woman’s avoidance in a crowded room would not have been beneficial in helping me convey my message; the message being one of inclusion and compassion. It would have potentially made me look like an ass.
- Being an advocate can take on many forms. Sometimes, a strong voice is warranted. Other times, it takes a more subtle approach to deliver the message. Learning how to balance those circumstances takes some practice.
- It is important to be a part of the solution and not contribute to the problem. Recognizing when someone is being marginalized can be tricky. Offering an example of how to interact, being willing to approach someone in a non-threatening manner, and providing resources to encourage change are some ways that you can begin to be a subtle yet effective agent for change.