Small wins: A school for Eric John and signs of hope

Photo by Ann Poffenberger, Eric’s sister & my marm.

When you first meet my uncle, Eric John, he’ll ask for your full name. Usually, first, middle and last. (In the old days, he might also ask for vital stats like address, telephone and birthday. Back then, he’d actually remember them, too!) He flirts with waitresses, has several girlfriends at school, and will talk to anyone who engages him.

After dinner, he asks every person* at the table how they liked their meal. You are responsible to ask him in kind. If you don’t, he’ll remind you, something like this:

Eric: How was your turkey Shawna?
Shawna: Turkey-rific, thank you!
Eric: Are you going to ask me how my turkey was?
Shawna: How was your turkey, Eric?
Eric: Turkey-rific!
And on and on.

The exchange is especially funny with newcomers who don’t know the drill.

Following dinner, Eric will tell everyone goodnight Walton-style. “Good night Shawna, love you, pleasant dreams.” “Good night Eric, love you, too.” “Good night Ann, love you, pleasant dreams.” This will continue for each member of the fam. For guests, he says “Nice to see you.” Unless it’s a special occasion, Eric turns in around 8 p.m.

Eric John is autistic, but unlike many who live with the spectrum disorder, he’s somewhat engaging, tolerant of physical contact like hugging and smooches, and fairly self-sufficient when it comes to clothing and feeding himself. He likes movies, music and summer camp, avoids animals** and writes letters to anyone who will write back, and many who don’t. We’ve carried on writing letters for years, and on occasions like birthdays, holidays and weddings (see below), he may paint pictures, too.

Eric’s painted letter adorned the guestbook/present table at our wedding. The
photo always makes me tear up. Photo by Beth Baugher of True Love Photo.

Eric lives with my mom and step-dad, Tim (his sister and brother-in-law) who take care of him full time with the help of social programs like the Orange Grove Adult School.

At Orange Grove, Eric gets the opportunity to interact with other mentally disabled adults. But not in work programs that usually involve menial labor tasks like cleaning remotes or picking up cigarette butts in parking lots (his former job), in an educational setting. He takes computer, art and writing classes, participates in PE and dance, and has meaningful, enriching time with others that helps him to actually enjoy life. And it helps my parents get through life, too. Orange Grove provides Eric structure and activities for the length of a whole school day which means that my parents can work, take care of business, and have a respite from caring for a 6’3 fourth grader.

In the late fall of 2010 (and maybe every year), California state budget cuts imminently threatened Orange Grove. We petitioned. We wrote letters. We temporarily received reprieve and it seems that Orange Grove will stay operational for another year at least. But what about next year? And the year after that? And other vital services necessary to care for the developmentally disabled? And other adult education programs? And education writ large? What then?

I suspect that a significant reason Orange Grove kept its doors open this year is because of the direct petitions from concerned parents and community members to legislators, city managers, supervisors, etc. I want to believe that our united voices made a difference. I know that I will keep my voice raised on behalf of Eric, Eric’s school and education in general. And I encourage you to raise your voice about causes that matter, too.

Write a letter, pick up the phone, send an email. If, like me, you see things that bug you like state budget cuts for education or invasive airport screening procedures, tell someone. Tell someone who can help you make a difference. I firmly believe that we can use our voices and our reasoning to effect change in the world.

What would you change, given the chance?


* The fam jokes at Eric’s informal ranking system. You can tell how much he likes you on any given day by the order in which he asks you about dinner. 
** I’m not sure why Eric disdains animals, but he always responds to jumpy dogs like the Grand-pugs Brandy and Frank with “spsss-spssss” or “darn dogs!” to shoe them away.

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