Making Time to Make a Difference

This post is by Max Martinelli.

By day, I'm a mild mannered corporate employee in the internet advertising technology sector. Like many people, I spend most of my waking hours working.

However, I don't define myself solely by my job. For me, it's just as important to use my time outside of work in ways that are fulfilling. In my spare time, I volunteer with the YAI Network.

YAI is a network of agencies offering people with intellectual and developmental disabilities --including autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and other neurological conditions -- a range of services across the life span. YAI serves children and adults in many ways, from offering preschool programs to providing employment supports to helping people build independent living skills.

I first discovered YAI while I was a young camper at Frost Valley YMCA, a sleep-away camp in the Catskill Mountains that offers sports, hiking, boating, and other camping activities. YAI's integrated Mainstreaming At Camp (MAC) program enables children of all ages and needs to participate in camp activities side-by-side, and to learn about and appreciate each other's differences.

Growing up, I spent every summer at camp. When I turned 16, I became a counselor and decided to work with YAI's MAC program. There, I helped children with a range of abilities experience camp the same way I had - playing sports, hiking, boating, and making great summer memories.

Working with kids with disabilities was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I've ever had. I remember one camper in particular who required more help than most in the bathroom, with eating, getting from place to place, and communicating. Working with him, I sometimes thought we were able to have meaningful conversations, but other times I felt as though we spoke a different language.

At the end of the summer, the day before campers went home, we said our goodbyes. After I explained that it was time to go, he looked at me and responded, "Then who will stay with me?" I bawled at his simple and heartfelt expression of how much my company had meant to him. I still get choked up thinking about it. I was never happier than when I was working at camp.

While I no longer spend my summers at camp, I continue to support individuals with disabilities as a member of YAI's Brighter Futures Society (BFS). We help raise money to support YAI services. We also engage in a variety of volunteer opportunities to get involved with the people YAI serves, including recreational activities such as arts and crafts or basketball, and social events such as museum trips and concert outings.

For the past 4 years, I've participated in a weekly basketball game with individuals enrolled in a YAI recreation program. Some of the players are my old campers. Some are new faces. But they all come to enjoy themselves, learn how to play basketball, and socialize.

I love playing basketball with the guys at YAI for all the reasons that many people love to play the sport: the fast pace, the physicality of the game, the teamwork you need to rely on each other to succeed. When we play, all of these things apply.

But there's something else that keeps me coming back week after week in my limited free time.
It begins when I walk through the door, and everyone is visibly happy to see me. The warmth I feel when I walk into the room erases any trace of a stressful day.

During the game, the guys give it their all and challenge me to do the same. On the court, we aren't concerned with what we do during the day or what labels people may assign to us in other parts of our lives. We aren't separated by the things that make us different. We are athletes. Teammates. People enjoying a game we love.

Through basketball, I've gotten to know and build friendships with the guys in the program. I've learned what YAI's tagline "Seeing Beyond Disability" really means. And I've seen how the simple act of treating people with respect, treating my teammates as I would treat anyone else on or off the court, can break down barriers and benefit everyone.

Volunteering has provided me with an opportunity to feel the way I did as a camp counselor years ago: like I'm making a difference. But the people I volunteer with are making a difference in my life, too, by welcoming, accepting and challenging me week after week. And once again I couldn't be happier.

Every year, I make a New Year's resolution to find more time to volunteer and become more engaged in my community. Because it's fun, volunteering at YAI feels like a small investment with a huge return. Nowhere do I see a greater impact on people's lives, including mine.