Where Everyone Fits

Originally posted March 15, 2017

This weekend we sold cookies at a Girl Scout booth outside a commissary on a military base.  I want to share what we learned about inclusivity and support because it was an unexpected pleasure.  

My daughter is a Girl Scout because her sister was a Girl Scout. Eliza was invited to be a Girl Scout and my instinct was to say no.  I hated Girl Scouts as a kid. I felt our leader was unfairly mean to me and I didn’t like going.  I thought it was boring and I didn’t really like the other girls there, I only had one friend in the troop.  In college I was hired to teach mountain biking at a Girl Scout summer camp, but I had to sign that I would practice and teach the Girl Scout promise, in which a part states that “. . . I will try to serve God. . .” and being a good college student, questioning everything I had been raised with, I had turned my back on christianity and could not in good conscience say that I was serving God and that I would teach other girls to as well.  So I was not a good Girl Scout.  

But, Eliza was invited and she was excited about it.  Her friends were Girl Scouts and she really wanted to be a part of their troop.  I didn’t want to be one more person telling her what she couldn’t do, she had enough of those, I needed to make opportunities happen for her despite my history with the Girl Scouts.  So I agreed, and she joined.  And it turned out to be one of the best things that she did.  It was one of our first introductions to inclusion and an opportunity for me as a mother to get over myself and do something for my kid. The troop was welcoming and accepting of her disabilities and willingly made changes to ensure she was always included.  I learned that the organization had evolved a lot since my own childhood and college experience.  And for Eliza, it was the first time she was a part of something that wasn’t based in therapy or school - with the Girl Scouts she could really just be a kid.  

Girl Scouts also strengthened Eliza’s relationship with her sister.  When cookie sales came around she enlisted her sister to flag down cars to her booth in our driveway..  At the time of cookie sales Eliza had just begun using a button to speak, she hadn’t had a voice before - choices, yes - but now she had a voice, even if it wasn’t exactly hers and always said the same thing.  She relished using it every chance she got.  We programmed it to sell cookies and she used it to ask everyone she saw.  Eliza was the second top seller in her troop by never being afraid to ask for the sale. Her sister witnessed her tenacity and excitement and wanted to be a part of it too.   

Eliza passed away before they got to be Girl Scout sisters, but that didn’t stop Breda’s excitement and enthusiasm to be a part of a group that her sister loved so much.  Which is why, on a rainy, windy Sunday afternoon we were standing outside a commissary selling cookies.  

What I really wanted to talk about was the acts of kindness we saw at the commissary that seemed so commonplace.  When we arrived we went inside to introduce ourselves, ask where to set up and use the restroom.  As we walked around I realized the entire place is set up for people with disabilities, which makes sense to accommodate injuries sustained while fighting for and protecting our country.  It is welcoming to those who have given, sometimes quite literally, parts of themselves, to serve.  It was built decades ago, long before ‘universal design’ was a fashionable term.  I’ve never seen it executed so completely and it gave me great ideas of what designing a school could look like.  Every door, even the one to the restroom, has a button to open it.  Every restroom stall has bars, so anyone needing a little help, whether in a regular stall or the bigger stall to fit a wheelchair, has the needed help.  The sinks, soaps, towels and dryers were all placed a little lower on the wall, which was great for my 5-year-old who could reach everything, creating no inconvenience for the able bodied and every convenience for someone using a wheelchair.  

And that’s just the grocery store! The people were outstanding too.  There were extra staff to help out the elderly, disabled or people who just bought a lot of food, get to their cars.  We witnessed one older gentleman ask another man in the parking lot to guide him out of his parking stall, and his response was not just to guide him, but seeing he needed extra help, offered to actually drive the car out of the spot for him so he didn’t need to worry about his range of motion to look backward or his spatial awareness to not hit other cars.  I haven’t seen that level of helpfulness and kindness since I was a child in a small midwestern farm town.  

It was an experience that was unexpected - we only wanted to sell our last several boxes of Girl Scout cookies… But what we witnessed was an understanding that everyone has different abilities and strengths, and a willingness to help.  The structure of the building, the staff and the culture was one of support and acceptance.

A sense of belonging is a basic human need.  The feeling that we are accepted, we are wanted, we are valued and we are a part of the natural order of things.  The inclusion that Eliza found with the Girl Scouts and the design and structure of the commissary both created a sense of belonging.  In a world that is so fractured, it’s comforting to find places where everyone fits.

 

Tanya Sheckley