A setting where someone could show up as exactly themselves and be celebrated for it.
For years I drove past a nondescript gray building on my way to class every day. Each time I passed it I wondered, “what do they do there?” When I saw the name of that building on the list of choices for volunteer options for my final quarter of school, I thought it was time I found out. I listed the Alyssa Burnett Center (ABC) as my top choice, with no idea what I was walking into. In part I chose it because it was unknown, I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn something new and broaden my horizons. I was equal parts excited and skeptical. I knew almost nothing about Autism or Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD), and while I wanted the chance to learn, I had no idea what to expect.
Little did I know that random gray building I passed on my commute was going to become my favorite place on earth, the place that feels more like home than anywhere else, and the place that truly allows all who pass through the doors to come as they are.
My first days as a volunteer showed me the magic of the ABC, I learned alongside our students and instructors. I watched as the teachers stood by and let the students guide their experience here. Each person’s different needs were seen and met. I spent most of my volunteer classes sitting with one student, looking at different color threads and naming what other things were the same color as each spool. Yellow like sunshine. Red like strawberries. Blue like the backpack.
Perhaps from the outside looking in this would seem mundane, but for me it was enlightening. It was the first time I had been in a setting where someone could show up as exactly themselves and be celebrated for it.
Within a month of volunteering, I knew I had to figure out a way to stay. I applied for a job as a classroom assistant. I spent twelve weeks in classes like choir, where I watched our students belt out “Firework” by Katy Perry. They inspired me and before I knew it, I was singing along. Before that, it had been 20 years since I sang in front of anyone. I was nine years old the last time I sang aloud outside my home, when a friend told me I had a voice like nails on a chalkboard. That’s what our students do for us all. They give us a place where it doesn’t matter if you are tone-deaf, you can sing at the top of your lungs just for the joy of it.
In August I graduated from UW Bothell and applied for a full-time position at the Alyssa Burnett Center. When I started as our Family Services Coordinator I was introduced to a new layer of the beauty of the ABC; the relationships we have with our parents, caregivers, and friends that support the students here. I learned the depth of commitment that our families have to supporting our students in their journeys at the ABC and beyond.
Every day I get to find new and creative ways to let our students come as they are. Whether it’s writing sticky notes to different staff members for a student each day or walking them to class with Pokémon coloring sheets in hand. I watch our students show up on good days and hard. I watch them learn and grow change and adapt, and they inspire me to do the same. I take pride in the small ways I get to make their lives better and allow them to be themselves. I once spent the better part of an hour researching the type of train whistle on a 1929 alco built Hammond lumber company steam engine for a student, a Casey Jones whistle, in case anyone needs to know.
I find myself emulating ABC students in my personal life. Learning from the ways they do things and the ways they show up for themselves and others. When I was having an anxiety attack at Pike Place market, I used coping skills and anchor words I learned from our students to calm myself down. When I couldn’t teach my daughter how to self-regulate, I use strategies I learned from one of our parents to help guide her along. I aspire to bring the friendliness and warmth I see in students every day.
As I now watch the next round of volunteers become staff at the ABC, I understand more deeply the pull of the magic of this place: where staff, students, and families alike are working together to create a space where representation and diversity of all kinds are celebrated and anyone who needs a space like ours is welcomed with open arms.
Our students teach me every day to come as I am because they do. They show up as their authentic selves in every aspect. They walk into the ABC from a world that treats accommodations as inconveniences and find themselves in a place where their differences are celebrated, their needs are respected, a place where their goals passions and interests are valued.
It’s not because of us, the employees and families that support our students, that they get to come as they are to the ABC. It’s all them. They show us how to adapt. How to ask for what we need. How to cope. How to try again. How to be silly. How to be creative. How to never be anything less than our most authentic selves. It’s because our students come as they are, that we get to too. Because they show us how.
What on the outside looks like a nondescript gray building we drive past but never really see is actually the most colorful place I’ve ever been. Where each of us get to show all our sides and shades together in safety and celebration. At the ABC we all truly do get to come as we are.