Smiling child

A Festival of Firsts: Independent Living in Action

Advocacy Specialist Cathy Steffke of DRW’s Milwaukee office wrote this essay about a memorable trip she took with the residents of a supervised apartment program where she worked. It was first published in the Spring 2009 IndependenceFirst newsletter.

Toward the end of my job with an organization called Alternatives Unlimited, I had just started as manager at a new apartment program. Two people from the community moved in. Every residence had a week long vacation decided on by the people living there. A vote was taken and it was decided that this vacation was going to be “down the Cape” if you are speaking Massachusian.

The other two residents were coming from one of the large institutions and were deemed to be so impaired that they were released only at the bitter end. Of course, the institution sent all of these terrible reports about them. They were “spitters,” “hitters,” and “biters.” You have to find a way to justify the years of wretched treatment of “those” people when, as staff, you systematically stripped their humanity from them and made a darned good living doing it.

The vacation was only a few days after they arrived at their new home. In the few days they were there they were thrilled and amazed. They had their first taste of freedom. After an explanation of what a vacation was and seeing some past vacation pictures, they agreed to go on vacation too. The institution staff was horrified. It was bad enough that these violence-prone people were walking our streets but now this, a vacation? Were we letting the inmates run the asylum? (Yes we were.) They could not be held responsible for whatever havoc was raised against the poor unsuspecting residents of Cape Cod. It’s funny how well-behaved people can be when you take your foot off their necks and invite them to live freely.

Off we went, 6 of us, me, the four guys and another staff person who had a peg leg and enjoyed dressing up like a pirate. We tried to dissuade him from this practice because it didn’t align too well with the philosophy of normalization. It was slightly alright for an ocean vacation as long as he didn’t overdo it. The vacation was fabulous. First beach for them, first pirate for me, first beer in a beach chair at sunset, making friends with local folks and their pets, first trip to a restaurant, first try at pinball; let’s just say it was a festival of firsts.

At one point I did have to come down on the pirate because I found him strolling the beach with two of the guys, pant leg rolled up, a bandana on his head and his shirt tied at the midriff in a knot. Oh, and there was a hoop earring as I remember. I’m pretty sure he liked the attention this brought him. I, on the other hand, did not. That was the worst thing that happened over the weeklong vacation. Nobody was bitten, beaten or otherwise hurt. We managed to keep enough sunscreen on everyone to prevent serious sunburns.

We had a little extra money at the end of the week and bought 2 lobsters and some steamers, enough for everyone to get a taste. We kept the lobsters in a cooler on the porch and the guys were just fascinated. What strange little animals. Around dinner time we started to prep the meal. One of the men filled the lobster pot with water and another filled a pot partway for the clams. The stove went on, the water started to boil, and the lobsters were brought in. One of the men realized what was about to happen first and started to melt down. Another one of the men caught on and started to lose it. The pirate and I freaked out. Long story short… those violent inmates from a Massachusetts institution implemented the first lobster catch and release program on Cape Cod.

They did like the steamers though. Anytime you dip something in melted butter it’s bound to taste good.