“What do you do?”

We’ve been struggling a lot lately with how to answer the question “What does Starfire do?”  It’s not as easy to explain as it once was, given our journey over the past few years.

It’s different for every person, it’s often serendipitous, and it’s never complete.

So it’s best told in stories, and here’s one for ya:

If you read this post, you’ll meet Mike Holmes.  In one of my most treasured books, David Schwartz would say that on that day, Mike “crossed the river” from the land of “clienthood”  into the land of “citizenship” in my view of him.  What I came to understand that day was that Mike was not my “client,” “consumer,” “individual,” or “little buddy,” or any other word that is typically used to describe people with disabilities.

He was my best friend, who made a tough day a little better.  It was a big day for me, in so many ways.

Another big day was on the day of Mike’s PATH.  It was sometime in the spring of 2010.  I was there, along with Mike’s mom, dad and sister.  Candice and a few other Starfire staff, and a few of Mike’s good friends from Starfire were invited as well.  (As an aside, all of those friends had labels of disabilities).

As soon as we sat down, I realized how right (at least in spirit) Janet Klees had been about the issues with friendships (you can read about that at the end of this post.)  Here we were, sitting down to talk about Mike’s life…his greatest hopes and dreams for the future!…and the only people in the room were his family, paid staff, and other people with disabilities.

It’s not that those people are not valuable or important to Mike.  Quite the contrary!  But there is an especially valuable opportunity if we can find connections with unpaid, unrelated citizens who can be a part of Mike’s life.

I couldn’t help but think of all the people Mike and I had spent time with over the past few years:  Smitty, Adam, Jill, Sally….All of them seemed like missed opportunities.

At that moment, I understood that my friendship with Mike, while very wonderful,  mutual, and valuable to us both, had become an end instead of a beginning.  I started to comprehend that while Mike and I were out having fun (always guaranteed when we hit the town), we could have also been intentionally building more friendships with other people.  We could have used our relationship as a conduit to others.  Another big lesson, huh?

Mike’s PATH conversation was still terrific, as we knew it would be.  And his goals were pretty succinct:  Mike wanted to get involved in business, coaching, and volunteering.  There were many things mentioned, but Mike was pretty clear about those three things.

So we went to work:

Each year, Mike and I would be asked to speak on behalf of United Way.  We’d both dress up nicely and tell people how much we appreciated United Way and what it meant to us.  Mike was always the highlight, and I was usually along merely for chauffeur duties.  At one of the biggest speeches we gave, Mike brought a room full of the top brass of PNC Bank to a standing ovation in the Cincinnati Club.

Afterward, we asked Sally, who worked at United Way and had invited us to speak, if they ever had a need for an intern down at United Way’s offices.  She said sure, and within a month, Mike had secured a weekly internship at United Way, working on training materials and a Powerpoint presentation for their outreach programs.