I have a story to tell. Not my story, but a story I have been witness to. I will tell you how it started and will continue as long as anyone is interested to read it.
One fall morning a few years ago I was walking in the neighborhood as I always do every morning. I saw a roll of money lying next to the curb. I picked it up. I did not unroll it but it looked like it was probably five or six twenty dollar bills tightly twisted together. I went to the front door of the house and rang the doorbell. I knocked when there was no answer.
I finished my walk and watched the house all day until about five a van parked in the driveway.
I recognized the van. It was a large van modified to carry wheelchairs.
I took the money and walked to the house. An aid was unloading two of the residents in wheelchairs. At the van I asked the aide if someone had lost some money in front of this house. She said, "Yes, Josie had lost her money the day before." She pointed to the woman holding the front door open.
I handed the money roll to Josie. I said, "I found your money Josie."
Josie was laughing. I introduced myself to Josie.
The aide said, "Josie does not understand you, and she does not talk. Josie is a resident."
I jump past the entire middle of the story to the end. The middle will come later.
I try to think of a reason I write this story. It is simply this. For years these residents have lived in my neighborhood with only the company of paid aides. Not visitors. Not family. The next door neighbors not aware of the lives of these isolated women, protected because of their disabilities.
Who are they? Who do they have besides the aides to care for them? Where are their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters?
The group home in my neighborhood for the residents is closed. Gone. Gone where? Where have these people gone? Will they be looked after? They who are incapable of asking for help. I must remind myself something important. Each is a person.
The story continues with what I know first hand.
The house the residents lived in was a house modified to support wheelchair access. The work was done seven or eight years ago and the residents were moved in. Four women, three in wheelchairs. The two in wheelchairs and Josie lived there the entire time, about seven years. I am guessing about the time because I did not really pay any attention until the day I found the money at the curb. I could not guess what happened to the third woman in a wheelchair.
Each weekday the residents would be loaded into the handicap van and transported somewhere where they would be fed and cared for. I heard someone say the location was called “The DayHab” in downtown Levelland. The residents would be returned to their group home sometime around five in the afternoon. I would often see Josie step out of the van, walk to the mailbox, pick up the mail and go into the house. The aides would yell loudly to Josie, “Josie, get in the house.”
Every once in a while in the mornings on my walk, Josie would see me walking. Josie would always wave to me with both arms up, hands above her head. She would be smiling. On mornings when Josie was walking to the van, I could hear her laughing as she was waving. Josie would always wave. For years she would wave and I would wave back to her.
One day at the mailbox, Josie was particularly excited and attempting to talk to me across the street. I looked at the aide and asked what Josie was trying to say. The aide said they had ordered pizza and Josie was trying to invite you to their party. The aide just shook her head no and continued to push the wheelchair women into the house.
I had noticed Josie always wore the same thing for years, every day, winter and summer. In early December I approached a familiar aide arriving on her shift. I gave her some money and told her to buy Josie some new things for Christmas. She told me thank you, and she said she would. At the time I wondered why I had never seen visiting family at the group home. Never a visitor. In all these years, never. I thought at the time, surely they had visitors, I must just have failed to see them.
This is a difficult part of the story because I know so little. Difficult because I have so many questions. Questions without answers. If only the residents of the group home could speak. Because of their disabilities they have no words. They have no voice to tell us who they are, no voice to tell us their story, no voice to tell us their wants or needs.
Do they wish to see their mothers? A mother who might communicate with them by reading their faces and know their wishes? Do they wish to laugh and play with friends? Do they wish to learn new things? Do they wish to celebrate birthdays and holidays?
I had hoped to learn more. I learned nothing because the aides did their job well. The aides protected the residents and never answered a single question I asked. I can only hope they were cared for as well as they were protected.
I did get one answer from all the questions I asked. The answer was not said by anyone. It was not the answer I expected. It was not anything I wanted to hear. The thing so very obvious to all in my neighborhood. The thing I had never bothered to notice. A thing of indescribable horror. I had witnessed young people living lives of absolute isolation for years without family and friends. The residents were protected very well, but we were protected too. These people because of their disabilities are kept hidden from our view because their appearance might make us uncomfortable. Is this kind of life much better than living years confined to an asylum? Yes, confined still but almost as invisible.
This story will go on because people are still here in our neighborhoods somewhere, almost invisible, protected and hopefully cared for.
I write this because we must not forget that each person has a story going untold and we are their keepers and we are failing.
I had hoped to write more here. I have many questions. For now I would ask you to look around your neighborhood. Go and visit. Become involved. Joel...…
P.S. Yes, Josie was wearing new clothes the last time I saw her.