I was so excited to hear that I had been selected for the Community Solutions Program, as this was one of my dreams that I had been waiting to come true.
“Hello, Roshan! I am waiting at the baggage collection area to meet you.”
Soon after I disembarked from the aircraft, I received a message from a staff member of my host organization who came to pick me up. I was very happy, as it gave me a feeling that there were already people expecting me. Meeting Charity at the airport gave me a platform where I could start being part of the WID family and become familiar with the California culture. Charity`s meeting as part of my introduction of showing me around, telling me about the WID culture and the places that I can visit was so helpful to me. I kept asking question after question, and she tried her best to answer everything.
My very first day in California ended up with me feeling very happy with an excited mind, ready to start work with my host organization.
“You gonna’ go by BART, and third station you have to get off.”
The landlord told me when I asked how to get to Ashby BART. I was so curious–I had never heard of this sort of transport before. On Monday, August 15, I had my first experience on BART and realized this is what we call a “train” in my country.
At Ashby BART station, there was a lady on a special wheelchair! She was on her OWN–no one accompanied her. She was going faster than I walked. I just stopped and looked at her until she vanished from view. I climbed some steps and walked toward the Ed Robert Campus. In front of me, there was a man with a dog! The dog was so cute and lovely. I sped up a bit and tried to come closer and realized the man was blind. I was thinking while looking at him and the dog from time to time; I walked beside them and waited until the door opened. As I came through the door, there was a group of young people that I could see had disabilities. I went to the Reception Desk to inquire about finding my host organization. From the way the receptionist spoke, it was clear that she has a disability. I started to walk slowly, according to her directions. In a pleasant lobby area, a couple of people were pushing and holding wheelchairs with children with cerebral palsy. A man and a woman both in electric wheelchairs were going along. I just stopped and observed them.
I started to think, “Am I in the right place or in a hospital?”
Thinking through what I had seen, I walked and stopped at Suite 155. The door was shut, and it was obvious that there was no one in side. After talking to someone there, I realized that I was too early. It was 8:15 a.m. I came to know that the office opens at 9 a.m. I was told I could sit in the lobby, where there were lots of parents sitting with their children. It was a great chance for me to observe. I saw many people with disabilities walking here and there on their own, using different accessible equipment. I found that no one stared at them; no one supported them or held them. They were like non-disabled people–so independent. I simply could not see any difference unless they used accessible equipment.
Meeting Kat, my host community supervisor, was my next task. After meeting her, I felt more confident and happy. She gave me a lovely, detailed introduction, which really helped me find my own feet at WID. My very first day at my host organization enabled me to come up with a plan for my work.
I feel privileged to have been placed with WID as my host organization. The entire building is disability-friendly, and there are many service providers that use different approaches to support people with disabilities. Time after time, the meetings I had with Kat really helped me track my progress. They helped me develop a plan to achieve the ultimate goal of my fellowship, and Kat is a person full of ideas. Every meeting I had with her ended with scheduling more meeting appointments. Since she has many responsibilities, talking with her is like having a number of meetings with different people. Kat also helped me develop many human resource management-related documents.
WID has a small team of very committed staff. I found everyone from the Executive Director to the hourly paid staff proactive and very helpful and always keeping their word. With everyone`s support and guidance, I had many appointments with different organizations with a range of expertise in the disability sector. Charity was very helpful and helped familiarize me with the USA’s professional practices.
My first conversation with two directors who have Autism was one of the best meetings I have ever had in my life. Their pronunciation and accents made me hear “Autistic” as “artistic.” Once I knew the proper word, I could not stop laughing and feeling guilty, but the humor created a bond between us. They explained that there are triggers that are overstimulating for them, which explained to me why they work in a dark room. I was simply engrossed with some of their explanations about Autism. I found their ideas and comments very strong and practical, as they was their own experiences and feelings. By the end of the meeting, my weekly planner was filled for three weeks with five more meetings. All the meetings that I had with them inspired me and opened my mind about Autism. They supported me in gaining new knowledge, ideas, and different approaches to work with people with Autism. Not only that, they also enabled me to develop a strategy and a solid plan to work with people in Sri Lanka. I will always feel that if WID did not open this door, I would never have had that opportunity.
Tom, the Deputy Director of WID, is blind, and he took me to various places. I played a new game called Goalball. I visited California’s Muir Woods Monument in the National Park, and I saw how the use of Braille and ramps made the park accessible to everyone. I also had dinner from a food truck, which I was curious to taste. Until I went there with Tom and Kat, I did not realize that it is food sold from trucks. Once I realized the real meaning, I laughed at myself.
Dinner at Tom’s friends’ (Mike and Lucy) place was one of my unforgettable dinners during my fellowship. One lady was cutting vegetables and gave us a warm welcome. When I smiled at her, she did not smile back, but I thought she looked at me and ignored me. It was only later I realized she was blind. I was amazed at the way she cut vegetables and prepared dinner for us, cooking while talking to us all the time. The way she worked did not give a feeling that she could not see. She was so confident. I suddenly thought about blind people in my country. They stay at home and have to live their lives dependent on someone else. The dinner that I had at Lucy`s place taught me how a blind person can be independent.
Every Thursday, I had a 9 a.m. meeting with WID’s Executive Director, Anita. We were both in the same shoes in terms of our work, so she created a platform for me to have more knowledge about organizational management, strategic thinking, and planning. Her graciousness and helpful manner enabled me to open up with her and talk about my work-related issues and problems. After listening to some of the comments and feedback that she gave, I was thinking if only I had received this opportunity before. Every single meeting that I had with Anita not only gave me ideas and new knowledge but also provided me the purpose to think more and explore more about organizational branding in particular. Her endless support enabled me to have meetings with many other directors of different organizations from her professional network.
One meeting even changed my mind and my plan. When I applied to the IREX fellowship program, I had an idea to expand my organizational support by opening another satellite center in another district. After a meeting with one of the Ed Robert Campus partners, I changed my mind and started thinking about designing a project for senior citizens with disabilities. The meeting I had with Center for Independent Living (CIL) enabled me to design a project and raise funds, as well.
The quiet, helpful character, Josephine, was so gracious to everyone in the organization. Her sweet smiles and motherly manner made me feel very welcome in the organization. My formal and informal meetings with Marsha and Alex directed me to think about climate change and disability, and I will never forget the helpful lady, Elizabeth, who supported me in many ways to learn from WID. I found her lesson on photo editing software to be so interesting and helpful.
My four months in the USA, and particularly with WID, provided me with the best knowledge and experience that a person can ever have. I am very thankful to WID, as they opened many doors for me to explore more knowledge. My fellowship and the knowledge and the strength that I received from WID made me more confident than I used to be. So now, it is time to say goodbye with the strong determination of supporting people with disabilities in Sri Lanka and to help them stand on their own feet.
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