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Focusing on the positive

Dealing with setbacks helps couple see the best things in life

Mike and Cathy Sacco share their wise words. He survived a near-fatal accident and she works helping people with developmental disabilities.  (Dan Pelle)
Mike and Cathy Sacco share their wise words. He survived a near-fatal accident and she works helping people with developmental disabilities. (Dan Pelle)

Long before this Great Recession, Mike and Cathy Sacco were living the deeper values now emerging for many in these tough economic times.

They are grateful. They value people over things.

In 1999, Mike was hit by a car while a crew leader for Washington’s Department of Transportation. He endured nearly a dozen surgeries; rehab took two years.

For 22 years, Cathy has helped people with developmental disabilities find employment.

Their experiences give them a calm, reassuring perspective on surviving chaotic, troubled times.

Cathy, 55, and Mike, 58, recently sat down together for this Wise Words interview. Here’s an excerpt.

Cathy: I come from a large family. I have eight brothers and sisters. We had enough, but no excess. We ate a lot of casseroles. Wore hand-me downs.

I certainly had an awareness, at a very young age, of my father and all that he provided for us. It was more from my mom acknowledging how he worked to provide for a household of 11. He was an insurance broker.

Mike: My dad was in sales. When I went to school, my mom went back to work as a secretary. My dad had a coffee route, and he went all over Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Western Montana. And then that went away, and he was a couple of months without a position, and then he went to work for Sears. He was never unemployed for very long.

That’s a difference between then and today. There were jobs out there. You just had to go out and beat the bricks until someone said yes to you. We were always at the dinner table together, the four of us, every night. And so we’d hear secondhand where he’d been, where he’d put in applications, how he felt.

When he was unemployed, I think my dad felt like he wasn’t holding up his end. Did I internalize that worry? I think I did. It felt like my vision wasn’t as clear and I couldn’t see as far. When he wasn’t working, I had this vague sense of unease.

Cathy: I happened to be the oldest daughter so I did a lot of grocery shopping with my mom. She’d talk to the butcher. We always needed the biggest roast. She would say, “Johnny, you know, any kind of deal you can give me on that.” She was there so often, a regular customer, he always said, “Oh, yeah, we’ll just cut some cost off.” She was always frugal with our money.

Mike: How did my accident clarify things? I would wake up early in Sacred Heart, and every morning there would be Cathy, or our son, Joe, or our daughter, Rose, sitting in the chair, sleeping. I was never alone.

They didn’t have to do that, but they were there just to make sure that if I woke up in the middle of the night, there was somebody who I loved and I knew loved me.

I would just be overcome with gratitude. Which is interesting, because you are looking at somebody who has a significant amount of pain and an uncertain future and what I was feeling was gratitude, overwhelming gratitude.

I was finally going to be discharged after being in there for a month and somebody said, “What’s it been like?” I said, “It’s been a spiritual journey.” It was true, and it still is true.

Cathy: Work is essential to well-being and balance and wholeness in your life. There is so much that happens by being employed that is denied if you’re not. The interaction, the self-esteem, valuing yourself, seeing your place as a community member, contributing.

We’ve taught a lot of people with disabilities to be receivers, and then we put them in the adult world not prepared to be givers. That’s a piece we have to turn around. When they get an opportunity to give their skills and abilities, they just excel.

When I first met a young man named Chris, he had never had a job. He had a seizure disorder, and he worked really hard to convince everyone that he wanted to do something physical for his job. Everyone had safety cautions around it, but he really did convince everybody. He works at a warehouse supply store. He has a very physical job.

The interaction with him changed my life. Because of how he could endure, and be patient, and struggle through to employment, which we could all see was an effort.

Mike: How can people support those struggling in this recession? Be a good listener. We don’t give enough weight to the everyday kind of trauma. Mine was very splashy. It was in the newspapers. Everyone knew. There was a lot of support from all different places.

When it’s the everyday kind, there’s a tendency for people who could support you to say, “Get over it. Move on.” That’s not the right start. The right start is grief. And giving voice to that grief. And having someone there to listen. That’s critical.

Cathy: What do we hope our children will take from this recession? I hope what they take is what they hold on to from how they were raised. You work really hard to get a job. No job is beneath you. Look at life in terms of what you do have, and the abundance, as opposed to what you don’t have.

Mike: I try to catch people doing things right. Whether it’s the intern at the gym who is disinfecting the balance balls, or when someone makes a mocha as chocolaty as I like it, I let them know. What’s the reaction? Always, “Thank you.”

I rode an elevator with a nurse one day. I was visiting someone. I asked her, “Are you doing OK?” She said, “No.” There were policy changes and more paperwork.

I told her I spent a month in a “hotel” very much like this one. I said, “To me, you are in a sacred profession, because you never know when you’re going to bump up against a patient who says ‘Can you get me out of this pain?’ ”

We got out of the elevator and she said, “Thank you so much, I really needed to hear that.”

And we all do. We need to hear that what we’re doing is important. And that it’s appreciated. It’s a fairly easy habit, once you start it.

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