Club G: Compassion in Action

It’s a pretty long list of “can’ts” for Carmen Farrel's son. He can’t speak, he can’t navigate a friendship on his own, and he can’t play the sports of other ten year old boys. But just by “being there”, Carmen says he has changed a whole group of children, classmates he’s been with since kindergarten, for the most part. Just by being a part of that group, he has made those kids something different than what they would have been without him.  And this is Carmen's story about them…and him.
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Last fall Highlands Elementary in North Vancouver asked parents if their Grade 4 child would like to volunteer for a recess and lunch time play group to help their classmate, my son Ges (“Jess”), who is on the autism spectrum (ASD) and has some physical challenges. The school would have been happy with half a dozen playmates to help their friend learn social skills, since that’s how kids with ASD learn best. Forty-one children volunteered, or about two-thirds of the entire fourth grade!
 
Why? I wondered. What does my son offer these children that makes them want to volunteer in droves to be with him? Again, with the “can’ts”. No one can get inside someone else’s head, and with a kid like Ges, it’s almost impossible. He says “no” when you invite him to play (because he can’t imagine what something as wide-ranging as “play” could be), his speech is unintelligible, and often times his affect says “I’m not interested”, because it’s hard for him to maintain eye contact with some of his physical challenges. Even though it’s the opposite he wants.
 
What do these kids get out of their relationship with my son? My theory? They get to feel good about themselves. The majority of Ges’ classmates are kind and try to include him. They have the very best of intentions but Ges is a mystery and if he says “no” to an invitation, well then maybe that’s what he really means. But it isn’t. And yet each of them leave that interaction feeling unsuccessful. But with a little support from the adults, they learn a different reality is possible! And what might happen for those kids who learn that taking a risk can be successful and how might that change how they look at risk-taking for the rest of their lives?
 
A smaller group of kids, while they know most things in life are tougher for Ges, just don’t see him as different from them. He’s just “Ges”. He comes to their houses for a playdate, his tough days are accepted without fuss and his achievements are cheered. These kids get to be leaders with their classmates when it comes to Ges. That’s got to feel good.
 
All these kids took charge of this group. They named it “Club G”. They decided what playground games they could adapt so that Ges could play with them. Varieties of tag were modified to reduce the playing field and “it” wears a piney to be very visible, “California kick ball” was played with simplified rules and smaller playfield, and telling knock-knock jokes on Ges’ iPad showed everyone how difficult it can be to communicate when you have to type most of the time. It’s a unique and special club that offers social, physical and age-appropriate stimulation and therapy for my son that was invented and adapted by his fellow nine and ten year olds.
 
And now more kids want to join and there are plans for writing their story, creating a video and branching out to share what they’ve learned.
 
Finally, I’ve realized: that’s what my son does; he changes us. He’s taught me to be curious. To be patient. To see someone without comparison. He’s made me a better human being in ways that no one else possibly could. Because of him, I am able to see his differences without judging them as “less than”. I am able to see differences in others the same way. And this from someone who grew up in an era where kids like Ges were never seen by kids like me. I’ve learned this the really hard way, but Ges’ classmates already have this wisdom. They see his gifts and their compassion opens them to acts of generosity and inclusion that have make me laugh, make me cry, and make me feel grateful.

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