By Cassie Harden, a SkillCorps Trip Leader and Fundraising Coordinator for the Global Autism Project
Optimism is not exactly a term with which I identify. I’m not really a glass half full or half empty kind of gal. I’m a “Fill that thing with ice and make it full!” kind of person. I’ve never been able to define my particular disposition aside from once at a dinner party, where my seat became a soapbox and someone called me an “aggressively passionate optimist.” Despite her insisting this was a compliment, I couldn’t quite settle with that title.
Recently, a friend of mine gave me a book of inspirational quotes which was laced primarily with sugarcoated suggestions for dealing with the pseudo-traumatic realities of this thing we call life. But sandwiched somewhere between “shoot for the moon” and “count your blessings,” I found this little gem:
“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
As it seems, I am what they call “hopeful.” And exactly one year ago, I found my place in an organization full of proactive, plane-hopping hopefuls. I met my people in Global Autism Project—a rare breed of humans who reject the notion that communities must simply accept the provided glass of water, and choose to either appreciate its existence or resent what is lacking. Because when we look at the global disparity in quality services provided for individuals with autism, we can’t simply accept the waterline reaching halfway. There has to be more than just two options.
So we’re filling it—and not with resources from an abundant well. We’re partnering with the people around the world who have also rejected the two finite options of optimism and pessimism, and are responding instead with hope. As partners, we are actively working to help them fill the void with their own resources; expanding on what they know and building with what they have. With an ever-flexible method, a grass-roots model and a stubborn goal, I know that this makes sense. It makes sense because the foundation is rooted in sustainability.
And so, sustainability has become the soapbox on which I live. Sustainability is my single word response to the recurring question of “Why Global Autism Project?” And it was the sustainable change, and the lasting impact that I saw in action over the past two weeks in Chandigarh, India. But it took time for me to sincerely see what that meant.
This time last year I walked through the doors of SOREM as an ambitious, yet insecure paraprofessional turned ABA advocate. I was a wide-eyed, first time SkillCorps volunteer with hell-bent intentions on changing the world in two weeks. Having traveled four times with Global Autism Project, now as a SkillCorps team leader, I’ve learned to look back on lessons learned from my first trip to India last July.
What began, as a sonic-speed mission to train seven teachers in an assessment protocol, quickly became an eight-day lesson with one determined EI therapist and some pretty impressive volleys over language barriers. Within two hours at SOREM, I sorely realized that I would not succeed in implementing my initial goal of globe-altering change in just ten days. I remember leaving the school last year, after hugging Mamta (said determined therapist), hoping that my seemingly small lessons and objective advice would make a sustainable change in her challenging sessions.
Sixteen days ago when we finally arrived in Chandigarh, I felt a sudden pang of panic. I wondered if devastation would sweep in and knock the passion right out of me, should I walk into a classroom and find that nothing had passed the fly-away test one year ago. This feeling lasted about .7 seconds before the demons of failure fled my thoughts and I remembered my allegiance to hope.
“…the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
After preparing myself for what may feel something like starting over, I walked into Mamta’s Early Intervention room to observe a session. This particular session was of unique interest to me, as this kiddo joined the school during my time in SOREM last year. His assessment was definitely a challenge, and I was desperate to see any and every ounce of progress he and Mamta may have made together.
And the progress was incredible. There was laughter that followed task completion and songs were greeted with clapping imitation. In a world of data collection, I didn’t need to look at charts to see a measurable change (as blasphemous as that may be to say), her reinforcement plan was working and he was engaged in activities I couldn’t imagine he would complete independently. This, for me, was my defining SkillCorps experience. Measuring a year of progress in laughter, clapping and block stacking.
Then there was a moment when the word hope took on an entirely new role in my career with this organization. I’ve maintained my passion by having hope; knowing that what we are doing makes sense, despite my inability to imagine the lengths of the outcome. But practicing hopeful thinking is not what fuels my devotion to Global Autism Project’s movement for change. It is the hope that our partners—the unwavering advocates for quality services in these communities, are instilling in every parent of every child. It’s the contagious hope that spreads from the commitment and devotion of each teacher and therapist. That hope is what will continue to build local capacity. That hope is sustainability. And that hope will define the indefinite outcome of the beautiful work we are doing.