As the Willowjak co-editor, I think it is important for you to know who is updating the website, responding to emails and posting on our social media channels. It’s me, and my dear friend Stacey (aka WillowjakMama). Consider this a (very) long extension to my website bio. I’ll be writing here a few times a month so let’s get to know each other.
Growing up I was a very shy kid. I never raised my hand in class. I walked with the teacher at recess. I cried at every moment of confrontation. I whispered my answers when asked a question. My whole body would shake when making a presentation. I would purposely get hit with the ball during gym class so I could sit on the bench during dodge ball. Today, I still describe myself as a shy person. I still try to avoid moments of confrontation and being the center of attention. The difference is, now I understand being shy doesn’t have to be a weakness.
I care deeply about allyship, feminism, and accessibility. This being said, you won’t find me marching on the streets or making speeches. This doesn’t minimize how much I care, I often just don’t display it in a public way. I feel passionate about creating a world where everyone is respected, loved and has a purpose. I am fighting for this through my education and a plethora of first hand experience.
I identify as a non-disabled ally and direct support worker. I have not always been involved in the disabled community but I feel very involved today. I hope you will continue to read my story about an uninvolved teen turned ally.
My first experience working with people who were different than me was during my first co-op placement in high school. I did my placement with Big Brother Big Sisters. I was assigned to eleven students in a small community school who had social, academic, emotional and/or behavioural challenges. My job was, simply, to be a patient friend. I did a lot of listening on this placement. I was always surprised by how excited the students were to meet with me when oftentimes our meetings just consisted of us playing catch and talking. Not super exciting in my eyes. It dawned on me that the kids weren’t just super into playing catch. They were excited to be listened to without fear of getting in trouble or being judged. Still today, I think of these students often. They taught me that I don’t need to be a loud activist to make a change in someone’s life. I sat with these students listening to issues that felt huge to them and small to the teachers. I consider this an important moment on my journey because this is when I realized, shy little Liza really didn’t have to say much while making her impact on the world.
My following co-op placement was in a kindergarten classroom for kids with complex needs. This was a huge learning curve for me. I didn’t know how to put brakes on a wheelchair. I had never seen a feeding tube before. I hadn’t ever seen someone have seizures, let alone multiple in one day. I had never seen a communication board before. And I had never been so nervous in my life. I kind of felt like I was just plopped in the middle of a foreign land. I felt useless and completely overwhelmed as a teenager who knew nothing about disability. I was surrounded by young kids with very diverse and complex needs. I hate to say it, but I did not grow up with disabled people in my classroom as my schools never had sufficient programming, which is why this co-op was so eye opening for me. The kids did not behave, act, communicate, learn, move or think the way I did and that was both amazing and terrifying to me at the same time. I had a short five months to learn a lot. And I did. I left this placement feeling more educated than I ever did after leaving a high school classroom. This placement sparked my interest in becoming more involved in the disability community. At the time, I just wasn’t sure what that would look like for me now that my placement was over.
Luckily and challengingly, my final project in grade twelve was to change the world. This was how I became intertwined with Stacey and her family. Initially, I researched how to start organizations and googled how to create a successful petition; I was putting lots of pressure on myself to change the whole world single-handedly. It wasn’t until after weeks of tears and confusion that I decided to reach out to Stacey. I asked her if a small community group for her twin boys, with autism, would be of interest and/or benefit to them. Obviously, the answer was yes, or I wouldn’t be here today. We used the basement at our local church and met once a week. Our meetings consisted of lots of sensory activities, movies, outings and just being together. We called it Friendship Club. This was a way I could change the world without standing in front of a crowd or marching on the streets. Now at the time, I would not have said Friendship Club changed the world. I didn’t understand how two boys and two volunteers painting with their feet in a church basement really qualified as world changing. I wasn’t organizing climate strikes, saving lives or getting publicity, which all to me at the time, qualified as real world changing, not Friendship Club. Yet, now I whole-heartedly believe it did and continues to. More to come on this later.
Now, I am currently in my fourth year of Disability Studies at Western and I’m obsessed with it. This program studies the complicated intersection of the medical system and disability. We talk about how we can be critical of the world around us and what we create in it. We learn about how complicated care really is. We critique social systems and popular culture through a disability lens. This program is filling up my ally toolbox.
Since being in university, I’ve worked at two camps for children and youth with diverse needs. I am here to tell you that being a camp counsellor is one of the hardest jobs in the world. From what you know about me, you can probably assume I’m not your typical camp counsellor. Leading campfire songs is my worst nightmare and ‘get to know you games’ give me the heebie jeebies. Yet, Shy Liza managed to be a pretty good one (if I do say so myself). This did not come without its challenges though. I spent many nights crying. I almost had to quit. I had to have tough conversations with co-workers. I didn’t shower. I didn’t sleep. I ate somuch processed meat. Through all of this, I’ve got stories to fill my coffers, experience to fill my resume, and connections to fill my heart. My summers at camp were an important step on my journey because they gave me a unique perspective on direct support work. How do you support a camper having an anxiety attack in the middle of a lake on a canoe? How do you support a camper to gain independence whilst not losing them in the woods? I still don’t really know, but I did it and you’ll hear all about it! Stay tuned!
Currently, I work at a L’Arche group home in London as a direct support worker. L’Arche is a unique organization in the group home world and I highly suggest you look into it (you will be hearing lots about it soon). Working in a group home comes with lots of joy, tons of stress, wild hours and a whole lot of love. I feel nothing but blessed to have a job here. Shy Liza thrives here, because L’Arche truly celebrates the unique gifts of every person, including their staff. Again, this direct support work is wildly different than offering support in a classroom and totally different than working with youth in the wilderness.
I feel like I’ve just written out my entire resume for you. But I know that each of these experiences have played a role in shaping who I am today.
Ultimately, Shy Liza still lives inside of me and she will always be there. Becoming and being involved in the disability community has taught me to look for the strength in every person I meet. This includes me. I have found what I am truly passionate and excited about which has helped turn me into the person I am today. As a student in public school I felt like being shy was my ultimate weakness. The docked marks on each of my report cards were my proof. Now, reflecting on my journey, I realize what strength there is in Shy Liza. I am a good listener and patient friend. If you ever need someone to speak at an event, I’m not your girl. But, if you need someone to come to your event and support you, I’ll be front row.
I am so, so happy to be here. I’ll be here on Willowjak as a caregiver, student and ally voice. I hope you’ll follow along and get to know me as I embark on this Willowjak journey with a group of amazing individuals.
Follow along to hear all about the ups and downs in direct support work, young adult life, and allyship – it sure has given me lots to write about! Enjoy some casual, light-hearted tales about all my adventures along the way.