Putting the social in ‘social change’

Anne Hart | Sunday, May 25, 2008 at 12:30 am


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Heather Mullis wasn’t supposed to graduate high school.

Nor was she ever expected to learn how to drive, live on her own
or learn enough Spanish to translate for Spanish-speakers.

After all, Mullis has developmental disabilities.

She also had a baby at 15 and grew up in a single-parent
household.

The odds were against her.

People facing such challenges often end up alone and isolated.
Their dreams, even their basic needs, aren’t taken seriously.

But that’s not what this story is about.

This story is about what happens when people with disabilities
aren’t dismissed, aren’t written off, aren’t made to feel
invisible by mainstream society.

This story is about how volunteers with Chatham-Savannah Citizen
Advocacy kept Mullis – and hundreds of people like her – from
falling through society’s cracks.

Matching people with advocates

CSCA is a relationship-based organization that matches
“protégés,” people living with developmental
disabilities, with volunteer “advocates,” mainstream members of the
community who give their time to become friends with a person with
a disability.

The goal is to help people at risk of social marginalization
integrate into mainstream society. To let them know what it’s like
to have someone listen to them, support and encourage them.

CSCA celebrated its 30th anniversary this month. Since launching
in 1978, CSCA has paired more than 800 advocates with
protégés. About 100 matches are currently active,
with 15 new matches facilitated every year.

Protégé becomes teacher

Mullis credits her advocates, Tania Sammons and Molly
McGoldrick, with giving her the confidence to persevere.

“I’ve had kind of a so-so life,” Mullis said. “If it weren’t
for Tania and Molly, I wouldn’t know what to do.”

But both Sammons and McGoldrick say they’ve learned more from
Mullis than they’ve taught her.

Mullis, who has scoliosis in addition to being developmentally
disabled, was matched with Sammons when she was six-months pregnant
and struggling to stay in high school.

After Mullis had her daughter, things didn’t get easier.

Mullis dropped out of high school just a few weeks before
graduation. She wanted to earn money instead of a diploma. So she
got a job cleaning motels.

Sammons talked her into returning to school.

“She told me ‘You need to get yourself an education,’ ” Mullis
recalls. “If it wasn’t for her talking to me, I wouldn’t have
gone back.”

Despite her difficulties in life, Mullis is always so
personable, so inquisitive and keen to learn, Sammons said.

One Christmas, Sammons gave Mullis a globe, because she
frequently asked her where places were. Where’s Ireland? Where’s
Mexico?

Their friendship became even stronger when they each were
pregnant at the same time, Mullis with her second and Sammons with
her first.

Mullis’ other advocate, McGoldrick, loaned her car to her so
she could take the driving test to obtain her driver’s license.
She even took Mullis to the hospital when she went into labor.

No wonder Mullis asked McGoldrick and her husband to be the
godparents to her third child.

Sammons and McGoldrick also take Mullis places, to the beach,
waterparks, museums, and picnics in the park.

They make her feel like the worthwhile person that she is.

Role models

Today Mullis, 25, lives in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom mobile
home in Garden City.

Although making ends meet on $1,200 a month in disability
payments isn’t easy, Heather manages to pay the rent, cover the
costs of raising her children and make payments on a used Chevy
Beretta.

Two of her three children live with her. Her oldest daughter
lives with Mullis’ mom.

Mullis would like to work as a translator someday. She picked up
Spanish from friends and helps people out by translating at their
doctors appointments and other errands.

But right now Mullis says her work is being a mom.

Mullis calls her children her biggest pride, pointing to a
picture of her son in frame he made of Popsicle sticks.

Mullis wants to be as good a mother as her “second mothers,”
have been to her.

The admiration is mutual.

“It’s extra hard to navigate life sometimes if you have certain
challenges. Heather has shown a lot of courage,” McGoldrick said.
“It’s been a privilege to be her friend.”

http://savannahnow.com/node/504404

2008 SavannahNOW and the Savannah Morning News.

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