Moving from Activity to Connection

John McKnight once said that “A great community is one that systematically identifies and mobilizes the gifts and capacities of every single one of its members”.  A critical central strategy in Star Raft work is to make a conscious shift from the idea of filling someone’s life with ‘activities’ to a conscious focus on developing connection, companionship and contribution with people and places that are already in alignment.  This creates an sense of shared identity and purpose, and our ‘differences’ (disability included) fade into the background.

Instead of looking for or creating the next ‘program’, it helps to think in terms of finding the people and places in the ordinary community that share a similar interest or purpose, get to know someone who is associated with that enterprise, and ask that person to ‘come and help us think about this for a while’.

‘Driving Questions’

John O’Brien points out that the ‘driving questions’ that underlie our work have a great impact on the direction, shape, and outcome of that work.

We were reminded of this several years ago when we visited an ‘adult day program’ that had been developed on the basis of the question “What can we do to replace school for young adults with disabilities who have ‘aged out’ of school?”  Beginning with that question, the founders created something that had the shape of a school – a program based in a building, people with disabilities ‘attending’ with ‘peers’ (other students with disabilities), activities that focused on skill development, and so on.

For many years, the driving question, “How can we create an opportunity for people who are not working to fill their time and be productive?” almost always generated something that had the shape of a factory – the sheltered workshop.  That pattern changed when some of the driving questions changed, and we saw the emergence of supported employment, customized employment, micro-enterprise projects, etc.

The driving question, “What can we do to provide activity for people who have nothing to do during the day?” or even, “How can we make it possible for each person do what they enjoy during the day?” has tended to generate something in the shape of a perpetual series of supported ‘activities’, excursions, or even entertainments – ‘van therapy’, ‘mall therapy’, etc.

Most ‘developmental day programs’ seem to be constructed on the basis of the first two questions.   People arrive at a facility where they engage in a series of supported learning, recreational, occupational, therapeutic, or (we shudder) ‘maintenance’ activities.

More recently, we’ve seen the development of a number of ‘community-based activity programs’ that seem to be based on the third question.  Staff may accompany someone (or a group of someones) to a local swimming pool, or go on a hike, or even spend an evening at a local pub.  But the focus seems to remain on the activity per se, rather than on strategic thinking about how the activity might offer a path towards deepening connections.

Individual activities often involve some positive elements – pleasant events, positive interactions, maybe even some skill development.  But unless they are strategically focused on deepening connections, activities alone are unlikely to lead towards meaningful relationships and community contributions.

John O’Brien reminds us that as soon as we change the driving questions, we open doors to new possibilities. Here’s are a couple of examples:

Some colleagues who work in a rural community have always helped the people they support to attend an annual community dinner and barn dance – a delightful event, especially if you like barbeque.  Visiting with staff, we began to explore the possibility that a couple of the people they support might become involved with the group that sponsors and organizes the dinner and dance.  There’s always a lot of work involved and all kinds of contributions are welcome.

Instead of one great evening, there could be an opportunity for a few people to be involved for months prior to the event, which opens up the possibility of developing relationships with local citizens who represent many different kinds of connections – local farmers, family members, church members, people involved in civic life.

A while back, we visited a facility-based day program (school-without-end) where one of the activities was cooking.  ‘Cooking-as-an-activity’ involved staff assisting people to make muffins and other desserts in the facility’s kitchen.   The benefits?  An enjoyable hour or two.  A tasty product that could be shared with friends and family.  Some learning outcomes in terms of reading and following recipes, ‘functional’ cooking skills, etc.

But as the support staff began to explore alternative questions, they started thinking about ‘cooking-with-a-focus-on-connection’.

The first thing they realized was that they needed to stop cooking and start looking.  Being a good detective became an interesting new element in their job descriptions. They began to envision helping Sara, who loves to cook, connect with a local gourmet group that gathers in members’ homes to enjoy ethnic dinners and share food, music, and conversation.  If such a group didn’t already exist, they could work on finding people who might be interested in starting such a group.

The benefits?  ‘Cooking-as-connection’ contains all of the positive elements involved in ‘cooking-as-activity’. But it also creates opportunities for Sara to meet on a regular basis with people who share the same passion and contribute to a socially significant effort. She might even come to be recognized as one of the organizers of a delightful social event.

As our conversation developed, we helped Sara, a couple of the program staff, Sara’s mother, and the pastor from her church create a new personal plan.  Sara had been in the program for some time, and planning usually took the form of asking ‘what activity should we add to the calendar’ – focusing on interest and skill development, but without particularly focusing on connections.

Now, several new opportunities presented themselves, including the idea of ‘cooking-as-connection’, ‘gardening-as-connection’, and so on.  Sara’s pastor absolutely understood the idea of moving from activity to connection and made an on-the-spot commitment to support several connections for Sara.  Noticing that she makes wonderful lemon and poppy-seed muffins, Merv made a connection with a group of women who gather every Saturday to make muffins for the Sunday service – “I’ll introduce you to Mary, and she’ll introduce you to the other women …”


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