I start the van, let it warm up. The idling engine defrosts the windshield, heats the interior.
I go back inside REM Ohio’s socialization center, a fancy name for a place in Elyria, Ohio, that houses a day program for about a dozen and a half adults with developmental disabilities.
I’ll leave in a few minutes to pick up five people at their homes. On certain days, I’ll pick up a sixth person; not all of them attend the day program every day. Four of them live with their parents; the other two live in group homes operated by REM Ohio.
One is wheelchair-bound. I operate the lift at the rear of the van, then strap him in tight before heading to the next person’s residence.
Once we arrive at the day center, other staff and I unload them. Several are non-verbal; a couple of them need assistance to walk. I lower the wheelchair to the ground, and wheel him inside. Another driver also brings a bus full of individuals, one or two of them also in a wheelchair, and we repeat the process with his passengers.
If the center is short-staffed on a certain day, I’ll stay all day and assist with the daily routine, which frequently includes an outing of some kind – bowling, the library, a field trip to a museum in Cleveland. In the summer, I’m told, there are frequent visits to area parks.
When mid-afternoon rolls around, we’ll load the five individuals on the van again, and I’ll drive them to their homes.
In my new job as a driver for REM Ohio, which I started a month ago, I’m no longer in an office – although there is a lot of paperwork involved. I work directly with people. I am one of six staff – three DSPs, as they are called, two drivers and the program coordinator – who spend time with 18 or so individuals at the day center. Over time, I’ll get to know all of them well, I’m sure, and hopefully they will get to know me.
After a 30-year career in newspapers, most of it as a copy editor, I’m trying something new. But I do have this type of serving in my background, as my wife reminded me. I befriended a blind student when we were at Michigan State University and we kept up the friendship for years, only recently losing touch. I also drove a couple of developmentally disabled adults to church occasionally in Saginaw, Mich., one of whom lived in a group home.
I played the job search game for 11 months, and I don’t feel I did it well. I had trouble projecting confidence in interviews. I was fired from my last job. I’m sure many potential employers had trouble with that too.
I don’t think I have the drive and outward passion that human resources professionals are looking for.
Perhaps I still haven’t recovered from the first time I was unemployed for 11 months. That situation was different, though.
In 2009, I got downsized from a copy editing job I held for 24 years. The newspaper was facing heavy financial struggles, and the stress level in the newsroom intensified. We knew our jobs would end eventually, but we weren’t sure how or when. The newsroom was a living hell for two years. Several co-workers abandoned ship, most for jobs in other careers. I was one of the first to sign the buyout papers, holding on at the newspaper until it shrunk from a seven-days-a-week daily to publishing only three days each week.
The bitterness from that experience lasted a long time. In some ways, I still haven’t gotten over it.
The second time, I didn’t see it coming. One year ago today (it was Feb. 10, but it was a Tuesday), I was called into the editor’s office and terminated. Clean your desk right now. We’ll escort you out the door.
I let my wife down, I let myself down. At least, that’s how I felt.
I guess I’m just not up for the rat race any more. With good advice, I wrote a strong resume, I networked, I interviewed, I waited, I interviewed some more, I prayed and asked friends to pray, I continued networking, I sent out more resumes – and one finally clicked. Eventually.
I applied for the REM Ohio driver position in September, had an interview in October, a second interview in November, followed by fingerprinting and drug tests, then didn’t hear anything for a month. On Jan. 4, I was offered the job. I trained for a couple of weeks and began driving unsupervised on Feb. 1.
A friend told me last week that I’m a Mercedes doing a Chevrolet job, meaning that I’m vastly overqualified. I told him I don’t look at it that way. I’m working directly with people now. I’m not making the salary I was seven years ago, certainly, but that’s not critical to me.
I look forward to going to work in the morning. That’s what matters. And hopefully making a difference in the lives of the people I interact with every day.
Last fall, when I had lots of time on my hands, I started writing this blog. I’ll keep up with it. My 30-year journalism career will live on here. Instead of writing for a newspaper, which publishes only what the editor approves, I’m writing for myself. I am my own editor now.
I understand self-discipline. I’ll write professionally. I’m disappointed with most of what I read on Facebook. Most of it is either not believable or terribly one-sided. That’s why I edited each presidential candidate’s issues statements lifted from his or her own campaign website – all 15 of them (12 Republicans and three Democrats).
I also was invited to write for a Christian blog, so I’ll enjoy that too. I’ll try to keep those practical. I’m not into theological debates.
My newspaper career is most likely over. It’s time for me to move on. Time to get creative. To try new things. At work and at home.