February 6, 2011
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I walked into Misericordia with ignorance. I didn’t know how to pronounce its name, how it started, who it was for, and I didn’t even know what it was. Here is all I did know: I knew that I was going on my second mission trip with Young Neighbors in Action (my last was to Detroit), and I knew that already, on my first day, I wasn’t getting what I wanted. Many of my friends were placed at other worksites, and besides, I had signed up to work with kids… and from what I understood, the people we would mostly work with at Misericordia were adults. I walked in with prejudice, with trepidation, and with disappointment.
I hadn’t ever worked one-on-one with anyone with a developmental disorder, or DD, before. On my first day, I wasn’t sure what to say, how to act, or how I could help. I was placed in Julie’s Art Room, making mosaic frames, and was put to work as soon as the first resident entered the room. I felt awkward, not wanting these frames to be made too poorly (since they would be sold for donations to Misericordia), while also knowing that kids are not supposed to boss around their elders. Here was a person thirty years older than me… and I was supposed to tell HER what to do? I left her on her own for the time she was in, and while there are so many amazing artists at Misericordia, without any help, the frame turned out sloppy at best. Julie took off the pieces of glass after the resident left, and told me to help the next resident make something with more purpose next.
When the next DD resident came in, I talked a little more to him, but still felt unsure. His art piece turned out better than the last, but had I left that day and never came back, I would not have been as changed as I am now.

The second day, in Julia’s art room again, I was stunned when one resident remembered me by name, and she beamed when she saw I was coming again. All I had done the day before was talking to her, and answering her questions… Why was she so happy? What did I do? These were the questions I asked myself. So I rethought to the last day and this resident in particular. I hadn’t worked with her one-on-one, but she happened to be in the art room at the time I was helping the other residents. She asked me about my family, my siblings, where I lived, how old I was… the general facts about my life. I answered her questions honestly and as straight-forward as I could. She loved hugging me and poking me, and having contact in general. Julie reminded her to respect my space, but I just treated her the way I would if it had been a younger child, by teasing her, poking her back, and simply having fun.
That was all I did. And she remembered me.
Another woman started talking to me, telling me everything she was involved in at Misericordia – or as she called it “Mise”. She sang, danced, did art, and worked in the bakery.
“Wow,” I told her, after she gave a little song and dance routine in the middle of the art room, “I wish I could sing and dance like that. I can’t sing for my life.” She looked at me solemnly, and placed her bent hands on my shoulders. I noticed the distortions from downs syndrome on her face, and the way her cheeks had to pinch in to talk, the way her words were slurred, and the way her motor coordination didn’t let her to tasks like tying her shoe. While I was noticing this, she said to me:
“It’s hard. Yeah, it’s hard. But you know, you know you’ve just gotta keep goin’ an’ keep tryin’ cause I could hardly talk and stuff before but look at me now I mean I am a great dancer and I am in choir. Did you know I was in Choir? I am. An’ anyway if you try I know you can do it, I don’t believe you can’t. Just you’ve gotta try.”
I was stunned. I was shamed. It finally clicked.
She sang. She danced. She made wonderful works of art with limited help. Had I assumed that these things just came naturally to her? I must have. I truly thought that while she only had the mental capabilities of a seven year old, she was graced with gifts for singing, dancing, and art. I never thought about how much she had to try, to work, to struggle… And here she was telling ME that I could do the same thing. For me, things are so much simpler. I can read and write, and have no problems in school. I am never teased too much in school, and mentally, I am above average. So what gives ME the right to give up, to quit?

Another day. This time, I was getting ready to shower, and a boy – man – 26 years old sat down and started to talk with my group. His name was Mike, and he knew everything sports. He and the boys in our group would talk about this-or-that sports team, and if you ignored the difference of his voice, you would never even know that he was any more disabled than anyone else. We were talking, laughing, and joking together, and Mike became more to me than another resident. He became a real person, a person who loved hockey and hated Detroit, and who liked riding on boats, which he was planning to do for Father’s day when he had a vacation back home. He became just a normal person.
Then, he leaned in, and shared with us that he had fallen in love with a member of our mission trip group: Lauryn. This was when things started to go downhill with my judgment. I went from treating him like part of my group, my age, to like a six-year old with a crush on his babysitter, mostly because that is the sort of thing you would expect from a younger child: sudden exclamations of love at first sight. So I encouraged it. We laughed along, told him to go for it, and not once did he notice that in a way, we were laughing at him. To be honest, neither did we. We were just having a good time, finding it oh-so-cute that he “fell in love.” He told us about his wedding plans, and honeymoon, and eventually, he told Lauryn. Like the rest of us, her first reaction was something along the likes of confusion, shock, and then oh-isn’t-that-cute.
Long story short, I loved this comedy playing out, until Mike decided (since a guy on our trip wrapped his arm over Lauryn’s shoulders) that he would date ME to make Lauryn jealous. I found this cute too, at first. I laughed along, and was fine with it, since it was just to make Lauryn feel “jealous” and to make Mike feel good. After a little while, Mike didn’t care about Lauryn anymore, and he was fine with planning out our honeymoon instead.
Here was the thing: Mike wasn’t a four foot little kid or a really old guy completely out of it. He was a little over my height, didn’t look disabled to the eyes, and was only 26 years old. Play-acting like he was a child grew difficult, and I wasn’t sure what to do. He would wait for my group every day, and talked with us, making me sit next to him. I couldn’t “dump” him, and I just felt uneasy about everything. I started avoiding him, like I was now a little kid as well. In the end, I would come out, and sit next to him for a bit before he would leave each day.
One day, he gave me a picture. It looked like something one of my younger cousins might draw, but his handwriting wasn’t bad. On it, he had written: “Dear Kaitlyn: I miss you. Love Mike ------.” Taking the picture back to the school where we were sleeping, I felt overwhelming guilt, thinking about how nice Mike had been to me. He may never have a girlfriend, and most likely will never be able to be married, or really fall in love. Yet, even though he wasn’t able to understand mentally the true meaning of love, I feel like he made it a lot closer than anyone else I know has. What do I know about love? I know heartache, and crushing, and falling head-over-heels…
Mike would hug you the very first second he met you. Most of the residents at Mise would. By the end of the week, their definition of love was wearing off on me; I no longer felt uncomfortable walking up to anyone there, if I knew them or not. Without question, if they wanted one, I would give them a hug, or my hand to shake. I would ask them their name if they could talk, and I would tell them mine. More than knowing that I WOULD do those things… I actually DID. The hallways were no longer rushed through. Now I wanted to take my time, greet everyone, and get a hug or too.
I learned to love. I don’t think I could have taught them anything as important as that.

I only stayed a week. I didn’t really feel like I had done much at all, in the long run, since most of these people would be at Misericordia their whole lives, and I was just one of many volunteers. However, on the last day, at the Greenhouse Inn, a resident was eating lunch with his mom.
“Hey Kaitlyn!” He yelled when he saw me, “Kaitlyn, come here and meet my mom! Mom, this is Kaitlyn, and she was born on April 25th, and I was born on the 23rd and the 25th is you and Dad’s anniversary!” His mother laughed and told me how he had a great memory for dates when he wanted to, and that her son had told me about how he was in laundry with me, and I gave him a picture. He taped it up in his room. I was stunned that he had remembered me, and my picture, and even my BIRTHDAY…
And that was when I realized that if he forgot about me tomorrow, it would be okay. The important thing isn’t how long I am remembered, it was that I was there at all, and I learned so much from this experience. I didn’t want to leave when the time came. I hated to go back to Ohio, because amazingly, I had made friends with many residents, and I learned to love them all – even the ones I hadn’t met. I guess the fact learned from leaving was that while it would have been good for me to stay, that would not have helped the growth of programs like Misericordia. I had to leave for a reason, other than going home. Now, I knew how to love everyone, how to work alongside DD persons and how to teach and guide them, and how to support and assist organizations like Mise. I left to be able to tell others, and to write this.
I walked into Misericordia with ignorance. I walked out with love.

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