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Mentor helps youth with disabilities learn to see beyond their limitations

Ray Lancaster

Ray Lancaster

When a 1982 motorcycle accident left Ray Lancaster with prospects of being confined to a wheel chair, he decided he could and would live a good life in a wheel chair.

“That was the moment I decided to live,” he said.

Now through volunteering as a mentor with a 20-year-old developmentally disabled special-ed high school student with Project MOVE (Mentoring Opportunities for Vocation and Education), he hopes he can help that young man realize how much he has to offer.  Ray said his experience motivates him to connect with someone facing limitations.

With a broken back, he lost sensation below his chest.  He spent four months in the hospital, told he would never walk again.

His life and self-image changed as a young man who had worked in construction, mining and ranching in Nevada and California.

One day Ray, who grew up in Spokane and graduated from Ferris High, noticed he could move a leg.  Now he walks with a cane.

Ray Lancaster

Ray redirected his life.

After redirecting his life, he earned a degree in urban and regional planning in 1993 at Eastern Washington University.

Since then he has worked two years with the City of Cheney, a year with the City of Medical Lake, seven years in economic development programs with the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program, a year with Mayor John Powers of Spokane and three years with Skils-kin, providing services for people with developmental disabilities.

As one of 11 volunteer mentors with Project MOVE, Ray seeks to help his mentee consider options and issues after high school, as he transitions into college or employment.  He is encouraging the student, a “bright, motivated young man,” to try to enter regular classes so he can pursue college.

“The fresh set of eyes a mentor brings can help someone see possibilities,” Ray said.

Kerry Whitsett, community outreach specialist with Community-Minded Enterprises and Project MOVE, said the program is funded by a grant from the Department of Education and is a collaborative effort with the Washington Initiative for Supported Employment, University of Washington’s Center for Disability Policy and Research, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Inland Northwest. 

These partners believe “a healthy relationship with a caring adult is often the factor that will enable otherwise vulnerable 16- to 21-year-olds to succeed.”

Project Move has seven mentor-mentee matches and four mentors ready to be matched with youth.  Of 19 youth waiting for mentors, 13 are men and six are women.

Mentors meet with the youth one to two hours at least twice a month for a year, and talk on the phone.  Because Project MOVE is a research project, mentors record and turn in activity reports.

“It’s about creating relationships that may extend beyond the program if they are genuine,” Ray said.

“Mentors are not expected to solve people’s problems, but to encourage them and offer guidance,” Kerry added.  “Informal mentors in our lives provide an example to follow or offer words of support during our struggles.”

Ray said that although youth with disabilities are mainstreamed in school, “there’s a gap for people with disabilities to integrate into society.  Services drop away after high school.  More than 70 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed.”

He hopes to learn about limits systems can place on people.

“I like helping people find opportunities to better their lives and enter the mainstream,” he said.  “Often people carry the label of their disability and the focus is on what they can’t do.  This is a chance to help people focus on their abilities.

“People internalize what are told they can’t do.   It’s often what they become.  Some are frustrated, wanting to do more than bag groceries,” Ray explained.

Project MOVE looks at people’s skills and potential, rather than their limitations.

“We want to help people focus on something greater than themselves and their issues,” he said.

Ray has experienced people who see his physical limitations and make assumptions.  He has learned, however, not to assume they are making assumptions.

“Once a woman began quizzing me about my disability.  I thought it was intrusive and rude,” he said.  “Then she said she asked because she was just diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and wondered what might be ahead for her.”

For him, faith is a factor—with background in Presbyterian and later Unitarian congregations—as he continues to search for possibilities in himself and around himself, “to see something greater than the day-to-day world.”

Ray said that when he decided to live, he trusted he would be okay and have a good life.

Project MOVE organizers are available to meet with churches and community groups to inform them of the program and opportunities to recruit volunteers.

For information, call 444-3088, ext. 219.


By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © October 2006