Our teachable moment

Last May at the annual Covered Dish Supper sponsored by Chatham–Savannah Citizen Advocacy, I shared dinner with some new acquaintances – “Frederick,” a friendly–yet–reserved Brooks Brothers–dressed African American professional in his late 20s; and “William," a silent, grade–school aged African American boy.

After saying hello and shaking hands with Frederick, I extended my hand to young William, who stared at me and said nothing.  “William, say hello to Miss Gunn, and shake her hand,” said Frederick.

William’s coached hello and handshake was the only exchange between us for the night. Throughout dinner, while Frederick visited with me and the other adults at our table, he always had one eye on William, seated to his left. William ate silently and mostly stared at his plate.

I’ve thought about William and Frederick many times this past week, while reading news accounts of Clifford Grevemberg’s visit to Tybee Island last Friday.  According to news sources and published police records, Clifford, age 18, was Tased by a Tybee Island police officer during an arrest.  Clifford’s family reports that he is diagnosed with Asperger’s, a form of autism, and also has a heart condition.

At the supper last year, I learned that Frederick and William were introduced by the Citizen Advocacy folks.  William’s mom asked Citizen Advocacy to find a volunteer advocate for her son, in hopes that their friendship would help William and his mom navigate the public school system and the larger world.

Citizen Advocacy is in the matchmaking business. They introduce people who navigate society’s mainstream (like Frederick) to people who are at risk for becoming adrift or washed away forever as a result of disability (like William.)  Both sides of the match are in it voluntarily – no court mandates, no DFCS supervision, no payments exchanged.  If either side of the match decides it isn’t working out, they go their separate ways.

At the annual Covered Dish Supper, it’s easy to spot many of these matched up friendships.  High tech wheelchairs are everywhere, as are adults with extra–small bodies, limbs that don’t do everything they’re asked to do, hands that won’t hold forks, gaits that are extra–slow or extra–clunky.  Some folks’ eyes won’t stay focused. Some mouths work hard to form the simplest words, or can’t speak at all.

None of these descriptions apply to William. He’s a quiet kid with no visible characteristics that seem unusual.  I’ve met a lot of children (and a few adults) who would have sat bored and silent at such a function, just like William did.  Before Frederick told me they’d been introduced by Citizen Advocacy, I assumed they were an uncle and a nephew, or perhaps cousins.

In recent decades, disability–rights groups and federal laws have educated or mandated ways to include people with disabilities into everyday activities.  People with disabilities are more visible.

Sidewalk ramps, restroom grab bars and designated parking spaces are routine.  So are computers for workers, aides in classrooms, desks for students who use wheelchairs. Aging relatives using walkers or wheelchairs provide one–on–one teachable moments on how to be more accommodating.

And now there’s Clifford Grevemberg. From media photos, if you look past the recently broken tooth and new face scrapes, he looks like just another 18–year–old jam band devotee who could use a haircut. Every time I see him in the media I think of Shaggy in the Scooby Doo cartoons.

Like young William, Clifford has a diagnosed disability. Both look like many other people we see every day.  Clifford’s most unusual physical attribute is his bean–pole frame – 6’ 9’’ and 170 lbs.

On the surface, William’s and Clifford’s families have little in common – black vs. white, single parent vs. married parents, East Savannah neighborhood vs. suburban Wilmington Island neighborhood.

Dig deeper, and they share a lot.  These are families who are determined that their boys, who look “normal” but have the deck of life stacked against them, will live in the middle of regular society, not pushed to the side or forgotten.

William’s mom knew she needed someone at her side to help her son stay in the middle; now she and Frederick are working together.

Clifford’s older brother took him to Tybee for the Beach Bum parade, to be a part of something that most 18–year–olds would love.  Three different online commentors say they went through elementary and high school with Clifford, with one mentioning going to Johnson High together. No segregated school for this kid.

When Clifford was arrested, his whole family came to get him out of jail.  Then they called the media, and now we all know the story.  Without the family’s activism, this might have been just another arrest that none of us would know about.

Thanks to Clifford’s family, our community is having a teachable moment about how to be aware of, and include, people who look like everyone else but have a few differences–the William’s and the Clifford’s of Chatham County.  I’m learning a few things, and it seems this teachable moment is just getting started. Stay tuned.


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