J is for a Jenny Story: What is the Most Important Thing You’ve Ever Done?

Yowza! Y’all sure did get your cool discussion on for yesterday’s Introvert vs. Extrovert post. I’m continuing the deep thoughts for today’s Thoughty Thursday blog.

Hubby and I got into a discussion this week about the most important thing we’ve ever done in terms of the greater good (aka: the world beyond our immediate lives).

Let’s face it, most of the time, the only people who really care about what we’re up to on a day-to-day basis are our friends and family.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think our personal choices are important. I do.

Our actions can ripple far beyond us. But most people don’t get to see how their actions change the world. One of the biggest motivators for many writers is that seductive idea of making a ripple on the world with their stories.

Note for my non-writing pals: Writers think “story” is more exciting than anything.

But as hubby and I talked, I realized I could think of something I was privileged to do and see the results from.

autism_awareness_monthI used to teach autistic kids in a 40 county area in mid-Missouri. It was a really fun and rewarding job.

The goal of the Autism Project was to help all the autistic individuals in rural areas because they used to fall through the cracks A LOT.

I don’t know how many of you come from small towns but I’d never really spent much time in them before this particular job.

An example of the cultural difference between Los Angeles (where I grew up) and Cairo, MO where the oldest kid in my caseload lived:

In 1991, Cairo had a population of 243, all Caucasian, ALL living in rural areas, most of them on working farms.  There was a feed store, a storefront city hall and post office, four churches, ONE school (K-12), NO gas station, and a cafe.

But even though you could blink and miss it, I was happy to go to Cairo anytime.  Cairo had David, and he was a fascinating puzzle I longed to solve.

David was a compliant, funny, personable twenty year-old and he tried so hard.  He was non-verbal, except for some syllables, but David communicated and understood me extremely well.

He would nod his head yes, or shake his head no, in answer to questions.  He would point correctly to any object he had previously seen.  He could identify pictures of any of his family and he would always give the picture of his mother an extra pat.

However, David didn’t seem to be able to learn anything new.

I would ask him a question about something that he had no experience with, always with a picture to be pointed to. He would know that he did not know the answer, and just hover his finger over all the pictures before putting his hands back on the table and staring at them.

Everyone in my office was positive that David was bright and I was so excited that he was assigned to me.  But his story was heartbreaking.

This beautiful boy had been in an institution for the mentally retarded since he was eight years-old.  The family doctor told David’s mother that it was the best thing for him and she complied. In the 1970’s very little was known about autism. Remember, this was the age of Bettleheim and his “refrigerator mothers” theory.

Only David wasn’t retarded. He was simply non-verbal and therefore hard to test and evaluate. After 12 years in that institution, one of our caseworkers found him, evaluated him and determined that he’d been misdiagnosed.

No one at that facility taught him much of anything because they didn’t think he was able to learn.  Instead they had him sorting boxes of nuts and bolts and screws.

This kid was dying to learn.  It was in every line of his body when we worked together.

After three months, David showed major improvement with things like eye contact and social skills. More importantly, he began to trust me.  I introduced facilitated communication, a process where non-verbal individuals communicate via a keyboard with the help of their therapist, and we began working on that.

One day we were having a session and David was extremely excited.  He wasn’t usually so animated and his mom clued me in when she walked through the room:

“He always wants to watch Michael Jordan whenever he’s on TV…he just loves him.”

I smiled at David and asked him if he liked Michael. He immediately typed out YS.

Now this was the first time that David had ever typed a word that was close to English, and I got pretty excited.  “David, are you saying ‘Yes’ you really like Michael Jordan?”  He nodded his head and typed YS again.

I asked David if I could borrow the device and he nodded.  I typed in YES and turned it around.  “David, here is how you spell ‘yes.'”

He looked down for a minute and then he pulled the keyboard over, tapped out “IDGNOMIABCS” and pushed the machine back to me. 

I sounded these eleven letters out for a minute, sounding out things like “I dig no…” or “I ding…” David shook his head “NO” and pushed the machine an inch closer to me.

I tried to sound it out again, skipping around to the things I could understand – “’I’..’NO’..’ABC’” – and David began nodding and getting more agitated.

All of a sudden, I got it. “I don’t know my ABCs…David, is that what you’re saying?”

He nodded his head as hard as he could. I still get goose bumps thinking about it.

I told him I needed him to answer me on the machine so I really knew that we were talking about the same thing.  And he typed “YES.”

“Would you like to learn?”

He nodded again and, for the first time ever, reached out and touched me.  He pulled on my sleeve and flicked his eyes to make contact with me, really briefly. Then he nodded  and sat back in his chair with a tiny smile.

I lucked out that summer day to be the one who asked David the right question, in the way that he needed it. Yes, David learned to spell and, eventually, to speak, though he was always a bit garbled. He learned to write and to sign, and used one to supplement the other.

In his first official “interview” with the Project, one of the interviewers asked him what he wanted to do for a living, and he said he wanted to produce movies.

She asked him what he wanted other people to know about him.  His answer: “I want them to know that I’m not dull.”

The interviewer was so surprised by his answer, she questioned him about the word “dull.”

David smiled and flicked a quick glance up at her before typing, “I am not saying dumb.  They know now that I am not dumb.  I don’t want them to think that I am dull.  I want them to talk to me.  I want them to think I have something important to say.”

Despite helping David learn to read and write and speak, he taught me far more than I taught him. Working with him remains, to me, the single most important thing I’ve ever done.

What do you consider to be your crowning achievement? Does it involve a child, your book, a job or a project, or something else entirely? Enquiring minds LOVE to know these things here at More Cowbell!


Reminder: April is Autism Awareness Month. For more information, click here.

About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm (http://writersinthestormblog.com). Write on!
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35 Responses to J is for a Jenny Story: What is the Most Important Thing You’ve Ever Done?

  1. That is an incredibly moving story. I would regard that has a huge lifetime achievement. You made a tremendous difference to that boy’s life.


  2. Beautiful, gorgeous story, Jenny! Chills.


  3. Amber West says:

    You started my morning with tears.


  4. Tears. Such a wonder-filled story, Jenny.

    I helped to raise one of my nieces from the time she was 4 years old. Bedtime stories and songs were our most special time. After her favorite book – FROGGY!!!! – it was time for a made-up story, which was always about her being safe, happy, and loved. The ritual concluded with songs of being loved “a bushel and a peck,” a magic dragon, rainbows, silver linings… She turned 18 last month, and she will still attach herself to me for endless hugs, butterfly kisses, and hummed lullabies. She is safe, happy, and loved.


  5. Marie Trout says:

    What a beautiful story. Reminds me of “My Left Foot”… one of my all time faves…


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Well, Marie, now I have to go see that movie, esp since it’s one of your faves!! I’m very challenged in this area. And these days I pretty much watch Disney or Sesame Street something-or-the-other. 🙂


  6. That is such a great story! Making a difference in one life can change the whole world. I know the most important thing I’ve done is be a mom. 🙂


  7. Catherine Johnson says:

    Oh my goodness that just makes me cry. What a lovely story that you found David, but too bad he was institutionalised all that time, yikes! I can’t think of a better purpose in life than what you did, awesome!


  8. Laura Drake says:

    You made me cry – again!!!

    I have empathy for battered women – since I have the experience in my trying-to-forget past.

    For 3 years, I taught a court ordered self-esteem class to battered women. Like you said, Jenny, I got more out of it than I gave, and I believe I planted seeds that may have saved some women’s lives down the road.
    At least I hope so.


  9. zkullis says:

    Über-cool story Jenny.

    Something simple came to mind as far as my personal experiences. In fact I’ve found that simple gestures are frequently more profound.

    I lived in Mexico City during my teen years. There was a group of amazing kids that I ran around with. One of them suggested we do something for a horribly under-funded orphanage just outside of Mexico City. It was suggested we make Teddy Bears for the 80-something kids that lived there.

    We spent a few nights a week for half of November and half of December, stuffing, sewing, and putting together some teddy bears. I thought it was fun, easy, and was time well spent with friends. A few weeks before Christmas found a group of Suburbans and vans carrying a group of high school kids (American School of Mexico City, go Bears!) into the hills above the city. We were noisy, loud, and a few of us wondering what a simple teddy bear could do for a little kid.

    The orphanage was small, kind of old, and was very crowded. I remember being shocked at the number of kids there (none of whom were older than 12). Nearly every kid wore the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. They had visitors, people who would play with them, and we even brought a few piñatas.

    After being there an hour I noticed one little boy who stayed off to the side and wouldn’t get involved. I spent the rest of the evening with him, coxing him out of his shell, and by the end of the night he was bright with laughter and smiles. The kids LOVED their bears. They were the only thing the kids received for Christmas, and they treated those bears like they were treasure.

    The end of the night arrived. We started preparing to leave. Many of the kids waved, all of them smiled, and a few of them cried. The little boy that had won my heart wrapped his arms around my neck and called me Papá. I’m crying as I write this now. It was the most gut-wrenching and heartbreaking experience of my life. I had to leave him. He cried as I set him down and walked away. I wept bitterly as I watched him hold his bear (one of the bears I had made) as we drove away.

    I gave him a bear, but more importantly, I gave him love. I gave him one-on-one attention, my heart, and my time for a few hours, and for this he called me Papá. I was forever changed by this little boy. I was forever changed the moment both of our hearts were broken as I left the orphanage. We have the capacity within us for small acts of love, courage, and giving, and these acts always impact the lives of the recipient as well as the giver. I will be forever grateful for the little boy with his teddy bear.

    Thanks for the post Jenny, and thank you for allowing me to remember this experience. I’m sorry my reply was so long, I know I get a little verbose, but I could not do this experience, nor the story of this little Mexican boy any justice with something short.



    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Now I’m all misty-eyed. I think you should write this in a post on your own blog and share the story. Random acts of kindness mean so much. I’m sure that little boy remembered you his whole life. 🙂


      • zkullis says:

        Thanks Jenny. Again I’m sorry that I took up so much space on your blog. I don’t know if that little boy remembers that day, but I’ll never forget it.

        Kindness is the cheapest, easiest, and most powerful gift we can give. Awesome post!


  10. tomwisk says:

    Your story lit my day up. Damn woman you can perform miracles, or as some people say, seeing a solution and acting on it. As for your question in the post title: I haven’t done it yet.


  11. laramcgill says:

    Jenny, you’re tremendous. How powerful you are, making such positive changes in the lives of people around you. You’re stunning.

    I teach too, but I teach math in a local college. I get my happy moments by proving to students they can learn a discipline they’ve previously thought too difficult.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You’re too kind, Lara. Truly.

      If you’re teaching math, you are certainly changing lives. I’ve forever wished I had better math teachers. I think I’d really have liked the subject if I had. 🙂


  12. Phil says:

    Wow -what an amazing story! This is something out of a movie. I applaud you and your determined efforts. All it takes is one person to believe and you did. It’s like you are his Angel come to save him. Keep doing the things you do. There are not enough people around like you.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You are sweet, Phil. There are PLENTY of people like me, and thousands of them work quietly behind the scenes. 🙂

      I was in awe of the woman who trained me. She was one of the professionals who worked with the man that “Rainman” was based off of and she was just magic.


  13. Joyce says:

    I worked for Marlboro Hall, a respite home in St. Louis and for SLARC, also in St. Louis. Some of those kids will stay in my mind forever.



  14. Oh my god Jenny. You made me cry with this story. Bless you for helping this young man. The only thing I’ve done was a long time ago. I taught adults who came here from other countries how to drive. Very hard, especially dealing with men who came from the middle east, yet super duper rewarding when I took them to get their driver’s license and they passed all the tests!


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I’m sure that’s not the “only thing you’ve done!” But I’ll bet it was extraordinarily rewarding to see people becoming mobile. It gives you such a feeling of independence when you can just hop into a car and drive. 🙂


  15. rinellegrey says:

    Lovely story. I’m so glad you made a difference in the life of that young man.

    Rinelle Grey


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