“Crinkle and crunch the leaves between your fingers. What do they feel like? Listen to them. What do they sound like? Smell them. What do they smell like? Hank*, what do they smell like to you?”
Hank inhales, his eyes half-closed and his eyebrows raised. “Mmm …” He exhales loudly, as if he’s just taken a refreshing swig of chilled water. “They smell like ... hot chocolate. These leaves smell like fall. These leaves are hot chocolate.”
They not only smell like hot chocolate; they have become hot chocolate.
Hank is a poet. He’s also an adult with Down syndrome who spends his days at the Murray Ridge Center’s Oberlin Work Activity Center (OWAC). To most Americans, Hank isn’t a poet. He’s “retarded,” and that’s all he’ll ever be.
But to me and the other leaders of the Storytelling Workshop at OWAC, he’s a poet. I say “leaders” and not “teachers” because it would be misleading to call myself a teacher. Hank is teaching me.
My first-ever Saturday in Oberlin I participated in the Community Engagement Institute, a fun-filled and highly appreciated volunteering bonanza that introduces first-year students to local organizations by way of community-service work. Work is the wrong word. I, along with a dozen other new Obies, played the entire day at one of the nearby Murray Ridge Center group homes. We shimmied to the all-time greatest disco hits, belted our favorite Motown tunes on repeat until the karaoke mic petered out, battled for the most hotels on Park Avenue, and collapsed in a heap at the end of the day under the shady trees in Tappan Square, sacked out and smiling.
My curiosity thoroughly piqued (who knew there were play dates in college?!), I set out to find other ways to volunteer at the Murray Ridge Center. I was overwhelmed. Complete with three Work Activity Centers, a host of group homes, and a school (not to mention a stellar staff behind it all), I found Murray Ridge impressively equipped to fulfill its mission. And what is its mission? To provide services and support that facilitate healthy, safe, and happy living to Ohioans with developmental disabilities–whatever that means to them.
But despite this noble pursuit and the center’s proximity to the college, Murray Ridge was (and remains) widely unheard of on Oberlin’s campus. As Oberlin students we pride ourselves, as we should, on our school’s history of inclusiveness and activism, but this admirable tradition of outreach is often limited to the “isms” of class, sex, and race. And so, with ableism as our enemy, the Murray Ridge-Oberlin College Alliance was born (MROCA). (In fact, it was reborn. An organization by the same name had been launched several years prior but had fallen off the radar after its founder graduated.) Through a bevy of volunteer opportunities including music and dance classes, computer skills training, visits to group homes, bowling nights, dance marathons, and the favorite, Storytelling Workshops (look for us at the ExCo fair in the fall, kids!), MROCA has reestablished a vital outlet for Oberlin students to connect with some very special members of our community.
Getting involved at Oberlin is the easy part. It’s avoiding over-commitment (translation: staying sane) that’s hard. Obies usually steer clear of generalizations, but if there’s one that could apply to Oberlin students, it’s that we’re busy and we do many things–at once. We’re enraptured in a lecture about werewolves in medieval French literature. We’re in Mudd Library’s Azariah’s Café for a meeting on the Lorain County literacy campaign. We’re sound-checking a late-night gig, cramming for that monster neuroscience midterm, dreadlocking our best friend’s hair, questioning if to dreadlock is a real verb, running late, learning not to hate, questioning if Boy-With-Plaid-Shirt is our soul mate, making rhymes, and the list goes on and on. Oh, yeah, and we go to class. (Seriously, don’t forget that you have to go to class.)
And as all of these activities pick up speed, the season slows. The temperatures begin to drop and the scarves come out of the plastic bin under the bed. The campus turns luscious shades of deep orange and red and yellow. You watch as the leaves dry out and curl around the edges, falling from the trees like the snowflakes that are soon to come. You take it all in, eyes half-closed and eyebrows raised. “Mmm ... hot chocolate.”
*Name changed to protect privacy