Rhode Island MENTOR Shared Living takes adults with developmental disabilities and places them in loving homes across the state. But the work does not end there. MENTOR and the caregivers that work with them must advocate on behalf of these individuals, helping them to secure jobs, connect with their communities and find opportunities that enhance their quality of life.
In pursuit of these goals and finding their place in the world, adults with developmental disabilities face a number of obstacles.
Congressman Jim Langevin faces a different kind of disability, but in speaking with MENTOR families at the Warwick office last Wednesday, said he has more in common with them than they might think.
Langevin shared the story of how he became disabled. At the age of 16, while coming on shift at the Warwick Police Department, an officer’s gun accidentally discharged in the department locker room, severing Langevin’s spine. The incident left him paralyzed and ended his dream of becoming a police officer.
Like many MENTOR participants, he was left feeling powerless about his own future.
“At first I was incredibly uncertain about what my future was going to be like,” he said. “I was very fortunate to have an incredible family around me and a community that rallied around me.”
Langevin reminded the participants that they have that same support system in the families they live with. The agency hosts “MENTOR Nights” once a month to provide families with the added support of their peers. Clients make friends with one another, and caregivers lean on one another for support and to share ideas.
“We all face challenges in life in one form or another. Nobody gets through life without facing some kind of challenge, yet I also believe that nobody gets through life without a support system. For some, it’s the family we’re born into; for others, it’s the family you make,” he said. “This is a great support network in and of itself.”
MENTOR coordinators match individuals and families based on need, as well as personality. When a family expresses interest in the program, they undergo a background check and application process, and then coordinators oversee a series of meetings between the caregiver and participant. If they feel the connection is there, the participant moves in with their new family, and MENTOR provides around-the-clock support.
Since 2006, the Rhode Island branch of the national MENTOR network has grown from serving four participants to 65 and growing.
Langevin could relate with the caregivers on another level, as his parents took in foster children over the years.
“I know what an incredible, rewarding experience that can be,” he said.
The Congressman did touch upon some of the issues he is dealing with in Washington, such as the national deficit and war. He said that presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney offer two very different visions for the country, and that he very much supports President Obama’s vision, especially it’s emphasis on policies that Langevin believes would strengthen the middle class.
“President Obama believes when we have a strong middle class, the country is stronger; that we’re all in this together. That’s the kind of vision I’m fighting for,” he said.
Regardless of political affiliation, though, Langevin urged the MENTOR families and participants to get involved in the process and to share their stories with elected officials so they can better advocate for individuals with disabilities. Personally, Langevin said that feedback could help steer his priorities.
“My job is to be an effective voice and vote for all of you in Washington. It’s important to share your stories and the challenges you face in your daily lives. You can educate us as legislators,” he said.
MENTOR Program Supervisor Mary Beth Clancy said the visit was an inspiration to program participants, because it showed how someone could overcome a disability and fulfill their loftiest aspirations.
“I think they appreciated hearing his story about how he’s faced challenges,” she said. “They were able to see someone who could be a role model for them.”
Moreover, with the elections fast approaching, she hopes Wednesday’s program could motivate caregivers and their families to educate themselves on candidates and advocate for the needs of the developmentally disabled community.
“I don’t think they really know how to connect to legislators, so by having him here, that is bridging the gap,” she said.
For more information on Rhode Island MENTOR Shared Living, visit www.ri-mentor.com or call 732-0304.