Approaching the end of our 2nd year of blogging, which we are grateful for indeed, we embark on year 3 with a new sense of hope and growing desire to hear from wonderful people, doing wonderful things, by simply living who they are! Linda and I, who are we kidding, Linda, drafted some thoughtful questions for us to ask people we come in contact with, work with, have just met, and/or are downright in awe of!
It is with great pleasure and utmost admiration, that I introduce you all to Melissa Hough. I’ve known Melissa for 7 years and have had the privilege of working with her here in San Diego, collaborating with her and hopefully co-creating with her for years to come! Melissa holds a Masters Degree in Rehabilitation Counseling from San Diego State University and has been working with Creative Support Alternatives for over 10 years, helping individuals experiencing disability, live fully inclusive lives. What I love most about Melissa is her pure, unadulterated passion for sharing her energy, love and gratitude with those around her. She recently spearheaded the Grateful Community Project, a simple, yet brilliant way to share with those around her, what she believes (and I completely agree with) life’s most important feeling truly is. She lives the values we hold dear at Come In From The Cold, and I had a chance to catch up with her and have a conversation about what she holds sacred in her life…
CIFTC: Can you tell me about an early experience you had where you felt aware of a being included, or a strong sense of belonging to a group beyond your family?
Mel: It’s difficult for me to answer this question without including my family. Besides, how do you define family? Aren’t friends, family that we chooseJ. There was a time in my life when I did not know my biological family and I always felt as if a piece of me was missing. I met my biological father and siblings when I was seventeen, and the rest of my extended family at my sister’s wedding.
While sitting in the pews, I was overwhelmed with emotions, as I was surrounded by rows of family members who had no idea who I was. My aunt, who did know me, told me to turn around, and introduced me to each family member: cousins, uncles, aunts, and finally my grandmother who was sitting one person to my right. I still to this day have no idea what she said, as she only spoke Vietnamese. With all her might, she pushed the person sitting between us forward, in order to grab me. She rubbed my back and I cried.
At that exact moment, I felt at peace with a family and culture I knew nothing about, a beautiful part of who I am but was unfamiliar with. It was as if my whole life I had been holding my breath but at last, I could finally breathe again. This experience was by far my most profound moment of feeling aware, having a strong sense of belonging.
CIFTC: Tell me about the most welcoming person you know. What do they do that ‘works’ in terms of welcome?
Mel: The most welcoming person I know is my first mentor, a special education teacher I worked for nearly twenty years ago, Lana Gregori. There is something about her that individuals are naturally drawn to her. Lana is warm, loving, understanding, and strong in her convictions. Her eyes are attentive, her heart is open, her laugh contagious, and she genuinely listens and cares for others. The creative, positive, empowering energy she infused into her lessons and students, radiated throughout her classroom, making for an incredibly welcoming environment.
Lana created welcome by being comfortable in her own skin, and just by being herself. Often, when I was in complete admiration of who she was, she would gently remind me that we are all just reflections of each other. The qualities we admire in others, we too possess. We are mirrors, and the light we see is our own, reflecting off one another. Coming to that realization creates an environment that draws one to it.
CIFTC: Can you tell me about a time when you felt a strong sense of agency as a local citizen? When you felt you had power in you to “be the change you wanted to see in the world”? ”
Mel: When I was still in high school, I worked part time for a woman with cerebral palsy that lived in her own home. During the summer, I had the opportunity to support her to attend school. It was at her school that I met Dale. Dale had cerebral palsy, utilized a wheelchair, and was non-verbal but incredibly expressive. Throughout the school week, he typically rotated two shirts with the same pants. His clothes were dirty; his hair oily, and his unkempt mustache would curl into his mouth. During lunchtime, it was difficult to know what he was eating from the sour smells that would radiate from the blended goop in containers he brought with him.
I often felt Dale was watching me and when you looked in his eyes, you could tell there was so much he had to say. No one had really worked with him to utilize any form of augmentative communication, and he primarily relied on yes/no questions, raising his wiry eyebrows for yes, and dropping his head and shaking it for no. Over the summer, Dale and I built a friendship. I could get him to laugh until he snorted, and he would roll his chair over to me to join in conversation. Eventually I found out the care facility he lived in and decided to visit him with my younger brother.
When my brother and I arrived, the lady at the front desk seemed shocked that someone was actually there to see Dale. In his eleven years of residing there, he had never had visitors. Once we signed in, she escorted us down the hall. We could see Dale at the end of the hall and he quickly started wheeling in the opposite direction. I was afraid that perhaps I was out of context and he didn’t want to see me outside of school. Perhaps he was trying to get away as quickly as possible.
We followed him when he took a quick right into a barren room with minimal furniture and one picture on a nightstand, which he swung his arm and knocked over. I picked it up to see a picture of a very young Dale surrounded by what appeared to be his family. In his eyes, I could see excitement, as I asked questions about the picture, which he confirmed with his eyebrows was his family.
When we left, I had a newfound respect and admiration for Dale. I cannot fathom what he has been through; being abandoned, relying on others who are providing minimal and poor quality care, not having an effective form of communication, or not having visitors in eleven years.
From that experience, I initially became overwhelmed. How could I help Dale have a better quality of life? How could I change the living conditions of all the residents of that care facility? I knew that I had to do something but what could I do, if anything? I was able to embrace Helen Keller’s quote, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
From that day forward, I committed to myself, that I would do all things with full intent and do the something I can do.
CIFTC: Can you describe what is going on for you internally when you meet a new person or group of people? What mix of emotions is present for you?
Mel: Typically, depending on the context of the situation, I love meeting new people. Of course, I do my best, to minimize any negative self-talk or excessive questioning of myself. “Was my handshake a little overzealous?” or “Do I have spinach in my teeth?”
There is always an internal mixture of uncertainty, wanting to be accepted; questioning where/what might be our common ground, and overcoming any awkwardness. Typically, I just remember that strangers are friends we haven’t met yet and I am genuinely interested in getting to know new people. There has to be a conscious effort to focus and find commonality with new individuals, rather than focusing on our differences.
CIFTC: If we keep in mind an idea that there may be “layers” of community building; nurturing your family, accepting friendly invitations, welcoming new neighbors, connecting/introducing people, initiating projects, facilitating events… Tell me about situations/experiences where you feel you really come to life and can make a contribution.
Mel: While at a CSLN conference, I was inspired to make gratitude cards by one of the presenters. Gratitude cards are simple cards that express appreciation for an act or deed, requesting that the card be recycled, passed on for something the holder is appreciative of. I also wanted to identify a way to be able to see potential impact, and hopefully inspire others to practice gratitude in their own lives, spreading gratitude throughout the community. From this, the Grateful Community Project Facebook page was created (https://www.facebook.com/gratefulcommunityproject).
While having lunch with a friend, I put a gratitude card in with our payment for the bill. The waiter returned to us, a little choked up, and stated, “You have no idea what this means to me.” That simple statement reiterated the importance and impact a simple genuine appreciation of others can have.
Everyday, each one of us has the ability to contribute, by practicing altruistic gratitude and by creating from our inspirations. “Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into the water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.”-Dalai Lama