Social isolation can be a reality for people with developmental disabilities, especially if they can’t communicate well.
That concerns Chris Weppler, a volunteer who leads Creative Studio for Variously-abled Adults at Spokane’s Spark Central. The free sessions twice a month promote social interaction alongside crafts and games. Adults who attend might have cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or severe autism.
During the hour’s time, Weppler visits with each participant one-on-one as they browse books, do puzzles, draw or just hang out. He jokes with them and uses an individual’s name often. Weppler also repeats back what somebody says to convey the message they’re heard.
“A lot of times people who have trouble communicating are isolated, and that has opportunity written all over it,” said Weppler, 51, who is retired from the military. “I’m motivated to offer opportunities to give some time to people who are socially disadvantaged.
“It means befriending and developing trust. I like to use humor, so it’s more fun. It’s amazing how much of a difference that makes. I love to see the smile on someone’s face; someone who might not be smiling that often.”
Weppler knows something about feeling isolated, and how one person can make a difference. During the 1980s, he suffered a serious head injury while in the Navy. He spent three months in the hospital.
He felt alone and disconnected until a military friend named Rick started visiting him regularly.
“I was the guy who was isolated; I knew it at the time,” Weppler said. “He really made the difference, and now I’m able to make the difference because I learned from him. For me, it was the continuity that mattered. I always knew he would be there, and that’s when trust really ends up developing.
“Rick showed up regularly; he came a couple times a week, and that made a difference.”
This week at Spark Central, Weppler visited with Greg Beavin, 55, who has cerebral palsy. He and Beavin worked briefly on a matching game to connect alike pictures of flowers, animals and clouds.
While sitting together at a table, Weppler soon keyed in on a favorite topic of Beavin’s, his portable radio.
“That’s a very nice radio, Greg,” said Weppler as he helped take the batteries out.
Beavin, now retired, wanted to go buy new batteries with the help of Connie Fernandez, his community inclusion specialist through Skils’kin, a Spokane nonprofit. The organization helps adults with disabilities through service contracts with government agencies and the private sector.
Fernandez had driven Beavin to Spark Central, and she said he was excited all morning about the visit with Weppler. She said Beavin typically is more reserved around people.
“With Spark Central, they’re so engaging, and for Chris especially, he’s just so empathetic,” she said. “He’s got that personality that’s just open. He’s kind, he’s caring, he’s patient – all the things that any person needs – but anybody with a disability, especially.
“For Greg, it’s kind of hard for him to get to know people, but with Chris, it was instantaneous. They had a good connection and still do.”
Weppler said it’s one of his goals to provide that individual attention to participants as much as possible, and past sessions have drawn two to three people, although the recent one only had Beavin attending.
Sometimes, he reads a book such as “Clifford the Big Red Dog” or helps someone do a craft project. The activities often depend on who shows up.
“It strictly depends on who is present at the time, realizing each person is different and their communication is different,” he said. “It’s a matter of cracking the code.”
Weppler has lived in Spokane for about four years. He said it’s important to spend time with people who otherwise might be overlooked. He also meets with friends regularly at Tom Sawyer Country Coffee in Kendall Yards.
“I found I really enjoy and and see it as meaningful to spend time with disabled adults as a way to support them,” he said. “There are times disabled adults come in, and I’ve been able to make a connection with them spending time with people intentionally.”
Eventually, Weppler said he hopes to recruit a volunteer leader who shares that focus of listening to others intentionally.
“When it comes to my vision, I hope I can find another person with a similar attitude to mine,” he said. “Ultimately, I would like to support three to four disabled people each day.”
Melissa Dziedzic, Spark Central program manager, credited Weppler for being the backbone of Creative Studio for Variously-abled Adults.
“Chris, who is passionate about this program, attends every session, and he has been the primary driver in sustaining and developing it,” she said. “He works very well with people of all abilities.”
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