Reach for your Dreams, Celebrate abilities...

Co-op Volunteering Is For Everyone

by Adrian A Smith

Dylan Kuehl is 25 years old and a lifelong Olympia, WA resident. He has been a volunteer at the Olympia Food Co-Op for 7 years. For that time his volunteer work has been an invaluable part of his life. Dylan is one of a handful of assisted volunteers at the co-op; he lives with Down syndrome.

He works as a stocker, volunteering weekly on Fridays. For his time he receives co-op green discount cards and will come home to tell his mother, Terri Rose, "mom, I brought home the green". The co-op is consistent and reliable in that way and the rewards for Dylan's volunteering have come to more than the card. In the beginning he was fully supervised and fully instructed. Now he's been there long enough to be mostly autonomous and only receives supervision when he asks for it. It has been a long road to build his confidence. Early on the job he accidently injured himself with a box cutter, now he uses it regularly with no trouble. He has overcome setbacks through trial and error, success and disappointment.

The co-op is great for any kind of people, with cognitive disabilities or otherwise. Everyone is fully included. It functions like a mini community where everyone is equally valuable. This is also good for Dylan because he "shows up big in life" as Terri says. "He wants to be heard, he wants to be seen. He embraces his interests with great passion." She has been Dylan's biggest supporter ever since he was diagnosed with Down syndrome and was said to be in the rare 4% said to have the lowest possibility of a high IQ. Dylan has surpassed his expectations and is always ready for new ones.

The co-op maintains a social expectation which has helped Dylan adjust with time. He's expected to be appropriate. At the same time every allowance is made for his personality and his disability. Important social skills have developed in Dylan through this experience. He's learned to get noticed for the right reasons. He has acquired what Terri calls the "nuances of social skills". He has also learned how to integrate his personality with the people around him, especially in regard to physical boundaries. The co-op has proved to be an ongoing learning environment. The experience has proved mutual too as the other co-op workers are learning right along with Dylan. "I've been working alongside with Ian, Cory, Amy and Dennis" Dylan says. "Me and Dennis are like the best couple there is. Not like boyfriend girlfriend though."

It's because the co-op is something Dylan can rely on that allows him to keep focused on his dreams and his goals and be "forever propelled towards the future" in Terri's ever faithful words. He's always looking ahead and he dreams big. The co-op is willing and able to adapt to this and has afforded him time for a trip to Italy and an upcoming trip to Ireland. "They gave me some time off for my travels" he says. Dylan's commitment to the co-op has paid off. In his own time Dylan has even started his own business, DK Arts (www.dylankarts.com) which showcases his visual and performing arts. He got his business license on 5-5-2005. He has a series of postcards and greeting cards of his work which Dylan hopes to make available soon at the co-op.

The co-op has been consistently flexible in that way, customizing itself to everyone's individual situation. They have a policy to take care of whatever the customer or volunteer needs. "The customer was looking for the blueberries" Dylan recalls. "I found the blueberries and I even held the door for her. I'd like to do more of that, more customer service." He loves food, which makes this environment fitting.

Dylan has sold art at exhibits and is also a motivation speaker. "He sees others abilities rather than his disabilities" says Terri. The ability to get in front of people to speak is a testament to the confidence gained in this seven year journey. "Dylan is courageous."

He gets praise from his community. He is a local boy who has overcome a lot and the community is duly proud of him. The co-op is one of his social hubs and he enjoys seeing people regularly. "My favorite part is the customers" Dylan says. "I get to see them every day, volunteering and when I'm not volunteering. Little kids especially."

Another big dream of Dylan's is to start a children's band. "I'm gonna start with one dream at a time. Beside the visual arts I'm going to start a children's band first." He has put together a mission statement and a list of songs. "I love kids, but not for food, though" he jokes.

Terri tells me there's always a new goal, a new expectation for Dylan, which he takes on one at a time. He remains hopeful throughout. He also has designs on graduating college. "I still believe he has more to go" Terri imparts. "He is a dreamer. That's the most exciting thing about him. He lives in a world of possibilities." Dylan has even found time for martial arts. He told me "I have learned from when I was at Civita, Italy... how the Etruscans and Romans came. Me, I'm like part Etruscan and part Roman. Romans prefer to be soldiers, Etruscans prefer to be artists."

Dylan's website is an encouragement and inspiration to many. People from around the world write in with positive comments of how Dylan has inspired them. "It appears to be that everyone... they're all starting to talk about me." Like any good dream, his seem to grow and to inspire those who come into contact with them.

He's ambitious in every sense it seems. Dylan said it's "very important about getting the co-op to turn me into volunteer of the month... I'm still hoping for it."

Dylan Kuehl loves to dance and sing along with his walkman while stocking and can be seen doing so Fridays at his local co-op.

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