Sharon Speaks Out

Commencement Address
Trinity Washington University

By Sharon B. Raimo
May 18, 2019

Good afternoon President McGuire, Faculty, Graduates of the Class of 2019, Family and Friends,

It is an honor to speak to you today and I thank President McGuire for asking me to be here and also for giving me this doctorate.

I am speaking not just for myself but for the members of the great Class of 1969. Graduates we are your Trinity sisters and I am here today to tell you how proud we are of you and of our alma mater.

Fifty years ago we sat where you are sitting.  And in two weeks we will return here to sacred ground for our 50th Reunion.  In light of this it seems fitting to talk about Trinity then and now and to think about what we all have learned here.

In our day this campus was decidedly different. It had not yet been transformed by the vision of President McGuire and the generosity of alumnae into what we see today.

Then, instead of the Center for Women and Girls in Sports, we played basketball in the basement of Alumnae Hall where, if you did a layup, you risked a concussion because the ball would ricochet off the nine foot ceiling and smack you in the face. Our pool was not the crystalline wonder that exists today but a tepid trench in the basement of the Science Building which stood where the beautiful Payden Center stands today.

We were required to swim the length of that pool in order to graduate. My roommate senior year did not know how to swim and was terrified that she would not walk at graduation.

We told her look this is basically a long jump. You are going to take a running start and leap as far as you can and grab for the opposite wall.  I think we stuffed her bathing suit so she would float and she went for it and made it. That was sports at Trinity then.

We were also, admittedly, a different crowd.  We came from every state in the union. Some of us were on scholarship but most of us were children of privilege. We did not have to struggle to pay tuition and if we failed to get employed immediately we had plan P, the parents.

We thought that we had all the time in the world to “figure out” what we wanted to do with our lives. But the nuns here had a different idea. They gave themselves four years to turn us into woman of substance. 

Their desire to instill in us the values of learning and of service was further galvanized by the events of the time. While we were here we witnessed the horrors of the war in Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

We stood in the marble corridor and sang “We shall overcome” with Sister Mary Hayes and on the roof of Cuvilly to watch as the city burned around us. We took part in protest marches as did many of the nuns.

One day at a class in existential phenomenology a note was posted that Sister, I  think it was Helen James, was not going to teach the class, we later learned she had chained herself to the White House fence. They led us by example as well as words.

As a result of our four years here many of us decided to live lives of service. We were all encouraged to volunteer and I volunteered with people with intellectual disabilities at the Kennedy Institute which was just up the road.

That experience began a lifelong love for people with intellectual deficits. They are delightful to be with in so many ways not the least of which is that they live in the now. They are not agonizing over past decisions, they don’t have regrets and they are not fretting over tomorrow. They are all about today.

And that is a great lesson for all of us. Our challenge as their fellow human beings has always been to make each today as meaningful to each person as possible.

At Trinity we were taught to value teaching and learning and so after graduation many of us went on to work in the field of education.  

Some of us were lucky enough to find great mentors and I was so blessed. Working in DC public schools under the magnificent Veola Jackson taught me everything I know about school leadership. She was smart, brave and tough and it didn’t hurt that she was stunning.

Unfortunately she had a previously undiagnosed terminal disease and she died on the first day of school in 1992. I was bereft and at a loss as to what to do next. Her replacement clearly did not want reminders of her hanging around and I didn’t want to be there either.

I was wondering what to do when a call from a professor at Trinity changed everything. He said he was doing a long range plan for a little school in Arlington that served students with severe intellectual and multiple disabilities. The school was struggling and needed new leadership so would I come and see what I thought.

The school was in a church basement with 19 students and a budget of $210,000. That was in 1993. Today St. Coletta is a thriving community with three campuses, one in Alexandria, one in Rockville and our flagship school at 19th and Independence Ave. in Washington DC. We serve nearly 500 people, both children and adults and we employ 365 individuals. Our yearly budget is 23 million dollars.

If you are driving east on Independence Avenue when you look to the left you will see the Armory and RFK stadium, if you look to the right you will see St. Coletta. The building was named as one of the ten recent new structures that you must see in DC by the Washington Post.

It is an architectural wonder conceived by the great Michael Graves. It is one of only three buildings of his in the city. The neighbors call it Legos on steroids and I was at first offended but now I get it. I told Michael Graves that I wanted playful and playful it is for sure.

During the process of planning for and building a 100,000 square foot structure from the ground up we learned new skills, made new friends and overcame innumerable obstacles. None of this could have been done without the help and support of so many generous people.

We could not have raised 16,000,000 dollars if we did not have genuine friends, many of them from Trinity. We also had the support of some forward thinking members of Congress, Alan Mollohan and Joe Kennedy, who saw to it that we got some much needed financial support.  We leaned on others all the way.

Now I am going to talk a little about what we do at St. Coletta. I will try to be brief and not boring and I am hoping to inspire some of you who will be teachers to embrace our philosophy of teaching and learning.

St. Coletta is a special place because we subscribe to a system of beliefs about all children and their potential for learning. We believe, as do most scholars and researchers who have set out to study the subject, not in the limits and weaknesses of children but in the surprising and extraordinary strengths that they exhibit.

These strengths are linked to an inexhaustible need for self-expression and realization. We can see this in even our most disabled youngsters.

 At St. Coletta we insist on seeing our students and adults as competent and capable of making meaning out of their experience not as a package to be remediated.

We believe that children and adults learn best in a natural environment, not in the compartmentalized, skills oriented approach which features the teacher as dictator and the child as subject.

We believe that pencil pushing and rote learning diminish and insult children. Such tasks are especially inappropriate for children with cognitive disabilities as they serve only to highlight their weaknesses.

Experience tells us that everyday problems are not solved by resorting to a single discipline. We need a more complex approach to problem solving and that is what we should lead our students to discover.

Between teaching and learning we honor the latter.  We believe teaching should take a back seat to learning and that it is the role of the teacher to provide experience rich projects in which teacher and student are given the opportunity to make meaning together as learners.

We agree with such educators as Dewey, Piaget, Pestalozzi and Montessori who state the differences in the cognitive styles of children are not attributable to one season of life but are an objective fact. It is our goal to nurture those differing styles by widening the opportunities for self-expression and self-realization that we present to children.

Our philosophy finds its underpinnings in the ideas of Howard Gardener and in the work of the Reggio Emilia Schools in northern Italy. While we understand and agree that no program of instruction can be imported wholesale and expected to work without some modification, we believe that the practice of reflective teaching, where student’s work is collected, documented and constantly discussed and reevaluated is the best way to discover how children learn.

We are committed to the training that is necessary to make our staff co-learners and reflective teachers. We are also committed to providing an environment for children that demonstrates our sense of school as community and our love and respect for them as individuals of immense value.

It is of tantamount importance that the environment echo the philosophy and that it give children a place to learn that lifts their spirits as well as serves their needs.

We believe that children learn best in the natural environment when supplied with experience rich, hands on activities that encourage problem solving , promote language development and reinforce social skills.

Inclusion in traditional academic programs is inclusion based on our weaknesses. We need to be included based on our strengths.

At St. Coletta we strive to think of ourselves as a community – a group of people growing and learning together. We reject the traditional ideal of school where there are teachers and learners in favor of the idea that we are all learning together.

We believe that this identity as a community of equals is important to all of us. It is important for the persons with intellectual disabilities because they are often relegated to an inferior position by society. They are the cared for, the ones in need, and we are the caregivers, the generous ones.

It is important to think of ourselves as equal to those we serve so that we do not miss the important give and take that should happen in every truly human relationship. People with intellectual disabilities have been deprived of giving and in depriving them we deprive ourselves of the very valuable things they have to teach us – lessons about openness and trust. So every day at St. Coletta we try not to lead the persons that we serve but to walk beside them hand in hand.

For those of you who plan to be teachers I know that you will be somewhat constrained by the requirements of the jurisdiction in which you teach. There will be pressure to teach to the test.

All of this happens even when as educators we know better. We know that the child should inform the curriculum and that the topics to be studied should be derived from what we know about the learner. 

Children learn best when we play to their interests and we should constantly try to study our students to see what it is that motivates and inspires them.

We need to know our students not in isolation but in relation to the other children in the class, to their family, to the school community and the wider society.

The layout of the physical space should encourage communication and relationships. The arrangement of the classroom should place objects and materials in ways that encourage choices and problem solving. In preparing the space you, as teachers, offer the possibility of being with other children, just a few children or the possibility of being left alone.

Our own experience tells us that people learn best by doing. Socrates said. “To be is to do.” It is easy to see this based on our own experiences.

When presented with something new we want “to try it” not “read about it” or “be told about it”. It is through experimentation and trial and error that most people learn best.

Why then would we think it would be different for children? An old Proverb aptly states “Tell me I forget, Show me I remember, Involve me I understand”.

At St. Coletta we have the freedom to practice what we think will be best for the individual learner. I like to think that we dwell in the state of possibility. We know that everyone has uncovered potential as we do our selves.

Each day and each season brings with it new chances to try things we have never tried before and to see what results that experience brings.

We see people react to different settings and experiences in ways we didn’t think possible. Every day they paint for us another piece of their portrait showing what is possible.

Our job and our joy is to discover their potential. We are all on a journey of possibility together. You future teachers should know that this will be your journey too.

Trinity today is physically different than Trinity in my day but the spirit that inhabits this place and its students is very much the same.  

The class of 1969 has been so impressed with today’s Trinity students in large part because of your focus and certainty about where you are going and what you want to do with your lives.

We understand that many of you juggle the demands of school, a job and family obligiations.When we were figuring out our 50th Reunion class gift it became crystal clear to us after talking to President McGuire and today’s Trinity students that we did not want our names on brick and mortar.

We wanted instead to touch lives. So we decided to invest in you with ’69 to the Finish Line, our initiative that identifies worthy students who are struggling financially in their final two years.

We want to get them over the finish line to their graduation day. We want them to sit where you are sitting.

We are so proud that our alma mater chose to focus locally and to give back to this city. Trinity believes in Washington DC and its people. Trinity believes in the more human place this city can become. And Trinity invested in you trusting that you will make it so.

Trinity has made such a difference in my life. Not many people can say that they have had friends for 54 years.  It is a great blessing.

So my best advice to you today is keep Trinity close. Treasure and sustain the friendships you have made here. And when the time comes in your life when you have the ability to give back remember Trinity and all that she gave you and give back to her.

Now go forward with all of our best wishes for your future.  Always remember you are our Trinity sisters. Continue to make us proud.

Sharon at Trinity

The Myth:
Everyone Can Work

By Sharon B. Raimo
There is a strong push in all sectors of government that relies on the myth that all human beings are capable of gainful employment. This is simply not true. This idea fails to take into account the thousands of people born with significant developmental disabilities that participating in a normal workplace environment impossible.

While I understand that there are millions of people receiving government assistance in the form of Social Security Disability Insurance (or SSDI) for injuries that occurred decades ago, and who have failed to return to work, there are many others who, through no fault of their own, cannot and will not ever be able to work in the traditional sense. Some of the people I am referring to have disabilities that render them unable to speak or to eat unattended. Many of them require assistance to use bathrooms or need their diapers changed. Others have behaviors that frighten the untrained and can lead to injury to themselves or others. Some are in wheelchairs and have no ability to use their hands. Others require feeding or breathing tubes. This does not make them any less valuable as human beings but the government insistence that they find “jobs” does diminish them.

It is true that these people need something meaningful to do with their days. We all need that. But that something needs to be specifically designed for them as individuals and supported by others who are trained to help. Perhaps they can do this work activity for a half day, perhaps only for an hour but if it has meaning for them then it is worth it. What is not worth it is having an individual travel with an aide to a work site and sit with their wheelchair on lock as the aide does the “work”. Not only is this undignified, it deprives the individual from having meaningful interactions with their peers and a feeling of accomplishment.

At St. Coletta we believe in creating work activities that allow people to participate at a variety of levels. Many of our people, even though they cannot speak, are skilled at doing other things. It is our job to discover what those things are. We have been surprised to learn that some of our people are skilled weavers while others have the patience and fine motor coordination to bead. When they are on the job they have communication devices or aides who act as their “voices”. Still other individuals who do not take to these activities can do order fulfillment or mailing; some independently, others with assistance. But whatever they do is done in an atmosphere that supports their talents and takes their needs into account.

The other impediment to meaningful employment is the way Social Security Insurance (SSI) for the developmentally disabled is structured. Under current guidelines, which have not been reviewed since the early 1980s, individuals can make only 80 dollars per month before their benefits begin to be cut and their health insurance (Medicaid) is tied to those wage ceilings. This means an individual earning minimum wage can work six hours per week before their benefits are affected.

What employer has the need to hire a severely disabled person for six hours per week? And if they do, it is out of charity and they give the person a “make work” job, like sorting old clothes or sticking them in the corner of a mailroom with an attendant and saying that they are “working”. In fact, this is a waste of their time.