Focusing on the Abilities, Not the Disabilities
May 2021 Issue
By Michele Roldán-Shaw
Photography (above) by Jacie Elizabeth Millen
Pictured above, left to right: Dayna Dehlinger, Laurin Rivers, Carol Bartholomew
Imagine if you could be happy every day, unaffected by the world’s problems and absorbed in the simple joys of creativity and friendship, spreading light and smiles to everyone who crossed your path. Now imagine being stuck at home with nothing to do, no one to talk to, and no sense of purpose in your life. The contrast between these two possibilities is as stark as sunshine and darkness.
In this dual reality faced by adults with intellectual and physical disabilities, the second scenario is all too common. But it’s also the reason for the first scenario, created by a trio of big-hearted women who have made the sun shine on a lot of very special people.
“We never set out to start a non-profit,” said Laurin Rivers, co-founder of Pockets Full of Sunshine (Pockets), a local organization with a mission to provide social and vocational opportunities for adults with disabilities. “We just saw a need—not only locally, but all across the country—and we wanted to make a difference. We’re very grassroots.”
In 2014 Laurin was a speech pathologist working in schools with special education teacher Dayna Dehlinger. Together, with mutual friend Carol Bartholomew, mother of a special needs adult named Sally, they teamed up to create Pockets Full of Sunshine after seeing the unique impact they were in a position to make. It started when Dayna’s brother sent her a box of yellow plastic cut-outs—byproducts from a manufacturing plant that produced labels for brake fluid caps—which looked like little suns. The bright shapes seemed to visually represent the joyful energy of special needs individuals, which gave Dayna and Laurin an idea. It wasn’t long before these cast-off “sunshines” were being upcycled into keychains, magnets and gift tags by adults with disabilities, thereby providing them with a much-needed creative, social and vocational outlet. It was the beginning of a new era for the “Rays,” as members of the program are now lovingly called.
“Sally was our first Ray,” recalls Laurin. “We’d get together to craft on the weekend, she’d bring a friend, and we’d put on music. It spread by word of mouth and soon we had regular times—it just grew from there. Now we have around 50 Rays, and for some of them, we’re the only activity they have. When they’re not at Pockets, they’re sitting at home watching TV. We ask what they love about Pockets and hands-down they all say, ‘hanging out with my friends.’”
The situation of Sally and so many others is something most of us aren’t aware of unless we’re living it. But for Carol and other parents of people with disabilities, it’s a pressing reality. Special needs children become special needs adults, often with no meaningful way to participate in society. And the parents are aging too, perhaps becoming widowed, or losing their ability to drive, while their adult children still have a lot of living left to do.
“I was always thinking, what’s going to happen to Sally?” said Carol, who has been an advocate for this population for decades. “What’s she going to do for the rest of her life? Twenty-one is the oldest age you can graduate from high school, and after that, there’s nothing for them. It’s a societal concern worldwide.”
Perhaps only those who are living this reality can truly understand the void filled by Pockets—but the love and sunshine it’s filled with are apparent to everyone. This is partially due to the devotion of the co-founders, who have become so tightly knit that not a day goes by they don’t talk. As women and mothers, they know exactly how to support one another, which sets the tone for an organization that is considered a family by its members. But the personalities of the Rays themselves play an even greater role. According to Carol, their worlds are so safe and their lives so basic that the presence they exude helps others reconnect with simple joys.
“We have a very vibrant, happy energy,” Dayna agrees, explaining that both she and Laurin left their jobs with the schools to devote themselves full-time to Pockets and raising families of their own. “People open the door to our production space and say wow, this is so cool! It’s almost impossible to be in a bad mood here. That’s why we call them our Rays of Sunshine, because their energy is so positive and creative.”
That contagious spirit seeps into everything the Rays create, from sunshine stationary to inspirational T-shirts turned out from their screen printing shop. (Their 2020 design “We rise by lifting others” was a smash success.) Working on these projects not only gives them a genuine function, it provides social interaction and a reason to get out of the house. Currently, Pockets meets twice weekly with an additional Friday Night Social Club that allows families to get a respite while the Rays enjoy a night out. But no matter what is planned for them, the Rays are always assured the dignity of being shown respect, just as any adult would expect to be treated.
“I feel that what we’ve created with Pockets is so authentic,” says Carol, affirming that love and compassion for this population is what keeps her and her co-founders going. “As a parent, what you want for your child is to be accepted, successful and have a happy path. With Pockets, Sally has all that. It’s not about the diagnosis—we always like to focus on the abilities, not the disabilities. Then you put the Rays together and the magic happens. If you come in our four walls there is something very special and wonderful. It’s the human connection, and I wish everyone could experience it.”
One of the primary goals of the program is to create opportunities for the Rays to interface with the local community, such as when selling their hand-made products at fairs and festivals. There is also a strong service component, whether they are tie-dying a hundred T-shirts to assist a local charity, bagging recycled oyster shells to refurbish our reefs, or stuffing 20,000 Easter eggs to be distributed by the Island Rec Center. The Rays aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and dig in because, as Carol puts it, they want to be “part of the heartbeat of the community.” Their widely cherished Fun in the Sun event, free to the whole community and scheduled for September of this year, brings together volunteer surf and paddleboard instructors, lifeguards, beach toys, snacks and T-shirts that are given away to all, even passing tourists.
“The whole point is not to create another building for them to go into,” says Laurin, adding that the pandemic made us all aware of how important it is to get out of the house, which is just as critical for the Rays. “We want to integrate them with the community, because they’re worthy. Inclusion is always our number one priority, and we’d like to get to the place where that comes naturally. When people are planning an event, they will think of us and say how can we include Pockets?”
The future of the Rays is only expected to get sunnier. While their immediate need is transportation for pick-ups, drop-offs and getting out into the community, a more ambitious goal is the Sunshine House, which is envisioned as a big funky collective containing a coffee shop, screen printing space and who knows what else. It would be a place college kids want to hang out, somewhere community members could go to get smiled on by the Rays. And of course, an environment in which the Rays themselves could thrive.
“I have lots of friends at Pockets Full of Sunshine,” said Jeremy Hall, a 48-year-old Ray who calls Pockets his family and wears a gigantic smile the whole time he is there. “It’s fun and enjoyable, and I like the crafts that we do. We paint stumps to look like gnomes, we cut out sunshines and we do T-shirts. I’d be very unhappy and kind of bored without it. I love it.”
Jeremy’s mother, Sue Hall, echoes her son in singing the praises of Pockets. “It’s a fabulous program,” she says. “They treat each individual with the utmost respect, and they understand their needs so well. It’s everything I ever wanted Jeremy to be a part of, and it makes my life easier, too, knowing he’s somewhere safe and having a good time so I can relax a little. We are so blessed to have this program.”