“I like helping my friends.” Robert Tyler
Robert is a man in his mid thirties who enjoys going out for coffee, working out in his local fitness gym, riding his bicycle, swimming, working at his job, and mowing and raking lawns for neighbors. Robert enjoys many friends and connections at his workplace and in his community.
Yet Robert’s life was not always filled with these connections. He came from the foster care system and a decade ago, very few people knew who he was. Robert was referred for job placement by the Maine Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation Services to Katahdin Friends Inc., (KFI), a non-profit agency serving adults with disabilities in Penobscot County. Subsequently, Robert began receiving supported living and job development services from KFI in 1995.
Work and Community Connections:
When Robert came to KFI for services, Peggy, one of his support staff, asked him what interests he had and how he would like to explore his new community. Robert responded that he would like to go hunting. As a result, staff helped sign him up for an adult education hunting safety course at the local high school, and eventually, one connection led to another.
A job developer, Bill, worked with Robert to search for work that was similar to the training that he had received at a regional vocational high school. It did not take long for Robert’s connections from the Hunting Safety Course to land him a job. Robert applied for a position at a local auto dealership and the only employee in the small business happened to be his Hunting Safety Instructor. When the employee found out that Robert was applying for work there, he advocated that Robert be hired for his first paid work opportunity.
Since his employment at the auto dealership, Robert has also worked at a number of other places. He has been employed at Cianbro, a large manufacturing and construction company in Maine. At Cianbro, Robert’s strong work ethic and job performance was recognized by fellow staff. Robert and his co-workers got along well in and outside of work. He often joined his colleagues for barbecues during leisure time and they chipped in and bought Robert a bicycle to ride to and from work.
As Robert’s connections in the community continued to flourish, he sought out volunteer opportunities. The husband of one of Robert’s KFI support staff introduced him to I Care Ministries, a relatively new church which involved itself in an outreach ministry with the distribution of food and clothing following the bankruptcy of the local mill. At the distribution center, Robert repackages all of the frozen food, loads and unloads the truck, washes the dishes, and helps with clothing distribution. Robert also is a long-time volunteer at Meals for ME, a local senior citizen meal program.
Robert’s connections not only evolved in workplaces, they developed in other facets of life as well. Earlier in his career, he wanted a mobile home but didn’t have the down payment needed
to make the purchase. Gail Fanjoy, a Program Director at KFI, was aware of Robert’s situation and she happened to be planning a presentation at a Supported Living conference. Gail knew that there would be representatives from the Bangor Savings Bank at the conference and she decided to bring Robert along. At the conference, Gail introduced Robert to Bangor Savings representatives, and he received a donation for his down payment on a mobile home.
Robert has been described as an inspiration. He influenced his Cianbro co-workers to be more positive and respectful by asking them to say “please” when requesting tools from him. He also made a difference in his community. His work at the ministry center allowed him to help feed 250 families living in poverty a month. People in Robert’s workplaces enjoy working with him and he has been referred to as the “go to guy.” He has been described by co-workers as a “hard worker” and “always finishes what he starts.” Peers have said that it takes three people to replace Robert when he isn’t at work. Robert’s co-workers have also described him as neat, clean, dependable, and funny.
One of the best places to meet people and engage in a shared purpose is church. Robert didn’t belong to any particular church, but started attending the Catholic Church with his friend, Leo, shortly after moving to Millinocket. Robert eventually took classes and became a Catholic on Easter Sunday in 1999. Because of his devotion to his new church and his willingness to help out, Robert was inducted as a member of the Knights of Columbus. He has impressed fellow members by his willingness to pitch in and clean up after meetings and events. As a result, he received a “Knight of the Month” award for always taking the initiative and helping out. Fellow members at the Knights of Columbus have stated that he is missed on the days that he can’t make it to a meeting or event. They have described him as “one of the guys” and they have mentioned that he brightens up the hall because he is so cheerful.
Robert currently works at Hannaford, one of Maine’s large supermarket chains, and he has worked there since 2006. He continues to volunteer at I Care Ministries and Meals for ME and does good deeds for his neighbors. He also remains a proud homeowner, and he makes regular renovations and updates to his mobile home.
Robert continues to be a valued, active person in his community. He’s now a well known, sought after trainer who has presented at several conferences, including AAIDD, Speaking Up For Us (SUFU), The Direct Support Professional Conference, Bangor Employment Conference, Asset Based Community Development, TASH New England, and most recently, the TASH National Conference in Pittsburgh, PA. Robert enjoys telling others his story in hopes that people with developmental disabilities also become valued community members.
Perhaps over a decade ago, no one knew Robert. Now, Robert usually can’t go anywhere in his community without running into someone who he knows. When he’s not at a local coffee shop or the Knights of Columbus meetings, his absence is noticed, he is thought of with fondness, and often someone in the community is saying, “Where’s Robert?”
- People are always evolving in their lives. At the beginning of Robert’s story, he came to KFI for services from the foster care system, and no one knew who he was. Years later, after making positive connections in work and community settings, Robert became a paid worker, a proud homeowner, a trainer, and a valued, well-known person in his community.
- In early years, KFI had a segregated preschool for children and a sheltered workshop and day program for adults. In the mid-1980s, KFI transformed their programs from providing segregated services to community-based and inclusive services. KFI’s strong philosophical approach to supporting people in meaningful and personalized ways in their communities has played a pivotal role in helping people like Robert to lead normalized, fulfilling, and active lives.
- Robert always had a champion, such as Peggy. Peggy listened to Robert and believed in him. She also set the bar high when advocating for him. Peggy’s commitment to being Robert’s champion and the ongoing support from community members have helped Robert along the pathway to become his own champion.
- Robert’s support person, Judy, has said, “one connection leads to another and another and another.” This was certainly true for Robert. Robert’s connection with the hunting safety course instructor led him to a paid job. Gail’s interest in connecting Robert to Bangor Savings Bank representatives at a Supported Living conference led him to home ownership.
- The benefits of community inclusion are reciprocal. People with intellectual disabilities not only receive services from their communities, but they also often want to give something back. Robert contributes significantly to his community by working at I Care Ministries helping to feed families living in poverty, and by volunteering at Meals for ME, providing the area’s elderly citizens with a hot meal twice a week. And if people with disabilities are to have equal treatment with others in society, they should have equal obligations as well which include an obligation to contribute to society through working.
- Although “bonding” relationships (with people like oneself) are the easiest to form, “bridging” relationships are important in that they allow people access to a broader network of people and resources.” To promote these relationships, activities need to involve long periods of contact, redundancy of contact, and a shared interest or purpose. Robert is fortunate in that he has many interests, personalized supports that help connect him to his interests, and many community members with which to share his interests. This is the basis of his friendships and connection to the network of people and resources that enable him to live “a good life”.