by Melanie Anderson
It has been nearly 25 years that I’ve been in the industry of supporting people with disabilities. While I am eternally grateful to have made a fulfilling career from assisting others, I am keenly aware that our industry has a way of distorting concepts and making labels. One of these concepts that I think has been over-complicated is the concept of community. I have been to countless workshops and read article after article on how to “do” community for those we support. While I acknowledge that facets of community building may require planning and patience for people with disabilities, I think a more simple approach to community may be better used in helping it become a reality.
Several years ago I lived in three very different regions within an 18 month period with my family which at the time included a new husband and two girls in elementary school. It was not until I had been living in the third, very rural region for a year that the concept of community hit me like a brick. I was struggling. I was lonely. We had a cute little house, pets, good jobs, and a good school for the kids, but we were not very happy. Something was definitely missing in our family. I was doing some research in my human services library for a work project and I came across a file from a fantastic workshop I attended several years earlier with Al Condeluci. In this folder were handouts, my scribbled notes, and a list of ways to build community. I read over the ideas for building community and got teary-eyed. I realized we were lonely because we did not have community.
Al Condeluci’s research and teaching on the concept of Social Capital had created a foundation for my professional view on the importance of all people being connected to community. Social Capital is the relationships that develop around community and the value these relationships hold for the members. He defined community as a network of people who regularly come together for some common cause or celebration. This means that community is not always about where you are. Community has three key features: people and diversity of membership, common cause or celebration, and culture. One of the many benefits of community is that it promotes a sense of social capital for the people who are part of it.
When I found myself in this great little town, yet lonely, I had no social capital. I had not yet invested in meeting my neighbors or connecting with the teachers at my kids’ school or joined a club or church. I remember hearing once, “If you belong to no groups, but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying in the next year in half!” I think this is particularly critical when you have small social networks or live in an isolated area. The way I was feeling lonely, even though my basic needs were met, may be similar to what some of the people we support experience. We provide care and support, but we should also consider helping those we support build their own social capitol. Keeping people safe is more than just meeting their basic needs, but it is also ensuring they have their own circles of support and the benefits that come with it. I started thinking about how to build my own social capital. I did not use any program or hire a consultant. I just thought about what I was interested in and the type of connection I might enjoy and then I looked for places where that was happening. This is an ongoing process but now, a few years later, I can see that I feel more connected and am enjoying the benefits of relationships I’ve built. I hope for this outcome for those we support as well. And I think that if we just take a simple approach, we will be more successful. During that training with Al Condeluci, we created a list of ways to build community and I have added to it over the years. It is so simple yet the benefits are so great.
How many of these have you done lately? How many will you be inspired to try for yourself and with the people you support? Let us know in the comments. Click here to download this list of Community Builders!