It Takes a Village (By Pam Selker Rak)

I recently spent a couple of days at Annandale Village, shooting a video for a client. And I haven’t been the same since. I find myself thinking about the people I met there, and smiling. A lot.

Annandale Village is a very special place. It serves adults with developmental disabilities and acquired brain injuries. But those are just labels. And it’s just a mission statement.

Meet Julie, a Villager at Annandale Village working on her rockin' guitar art.

Meet Julie, a Villager at Annandale Village working on her rockin’ guitar art.

The bigger statement is the heart of the people who live there; the “Villagers,” as they’re called. And after just a couple of days interacting with them, I realized that there’s a lot that people don’t know about those with developmental disabilities.

No one tells you how amazing they are. I’ll admit that, when I first walked through the door, I was apprehensive about what I might see and experience. But that didn’t last long. It took just one conversation to fall in love with these people and the place they call home.

And meeting after meeting, interaction after interaction, I found something new to admire about the Villagers. In fact, I began to feel very much at home with them; and in many ways, I felt more comfortable being around them than I do the general population. And I don’t mean that as an insult to the general population.

What I saw in the Villagers was such a sincere honesty that it almost took my breath away. None of them had inhibitions about telling me how they perceived me, and it was lovely. There were no filters. No one was “guarded” or protecting their emotions. There were no “walls” surrounding these folks. Everything was just “out there,” and it was refreshing.

I was so flattered when they said, “You’re pretty,” or asked about where I lived and when I told them, they said that the Pittsburgh Pirates or Steelers were their favorite teams. One man walked right up to me and stroked my arm; and without saying a word, turned around and walked away. It wasn’t offensive in the least; he was simply curious about the material of my shirt and wanted to feel it. And he did.

When we were filming in the art room, a woman started chatting with me, and out of the blue, she said, “People think I’m stupid.” I paused for a moment and said, “You are not stupid. But I think the people who tell you that you’re stupid are the ones who are stupid. You’re beautiful.” She gave me the biggest smile and said, “I know. Thank you.”

Another Villager came up and asked for my cell phone number so she could text me to see if I wanted to photograph her upcoming wedding to another Villager. Of course, I gave her my number but didn’t have the heart to tell her that I wasn’t a photographer!

And then, there was Bill, the man I met in their skilled nursing facility. The caregivers asked Bill if he would like to be in some photos – and boy, did he ever! Once he got started, there was no stopping him. He started coming up with different ideas and brought out different props from his room that we could shoot (with him in the photo, of course!). I completely fell in love with Bill and I haven’t stopped thinking about him since. When I’m working during the day, I’ll often stop and wonder how he’s doing.

I’ve always hated getting my picture taken; but Bill LOVED having his picture taken. And he put his heart and soul into it and had so much fun doing it. He made me realize that I’ve taken more than just a few things for granted.

He also made me realize that, after just two days – not even 48 hours – I developed a bond with these people. I learned that they just want to be heard, listened to and included. They want to be loved.

And so do all the rest of us. But the difference between the Villagers and us is that they don’t hesitate to tell you that. They put their emotions on the table so there are no misunderstandings. I realized that I could learn a lot from them.

They taught me that it’s okay to forgive myself when I’ve had a bad day and to forgive others when they’ve had a bad day. There’s always tomorrow. They also taught me to try to slow down a little, to ponder, to take time to just look around and take in this beautiful world and all of the simple joys we are fortunate to encounter every day.

But I think, most importantly, they taught me not to be so guarded with my emotions and to just tell people what they mean to me. Who cares what their reaction is? That’s really not the point anyway.

So yes, I’ve changed. There wasn’t one pivotal moment when this change occurred. It was many little moments spent over two days. Something just clicked inside of me and I’m grateful for it.

It really does take a Village – and in this case, Villagers.

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