College Student Finds Her True Calling While Volunteering at Center for People with Special Needs
Natalia Jones, 23, is a woman with a plan. Close to completing her masters’ degree in health promotion from Georgia College, she has volunteered since her freshman year at the Life Enrichment Center (LEC) a private nonprofit program for adults with intellectual disabilities living in and around the Baldwin County area. From the moment she walked in the LEC door, she felt at home. The point of getting her masters was to work at LEC full time and in five years, under the mentoring wing of the current executive director, she hopes to step into her shoes.
What inspires you to volunteer?
I’m the type of person who really enjoys helping others. Most of my volunteer time has been with special needs people. I think it goes back to when I was five years old and became friends with my neighbor Sue Wilder, who was 19 years older than me. To me she was my friend. I didn’t understand that she was “different.” Even as a little girl I felt drawn to these special people.
Describe your volunteer role with the LEC.
At first I got involved with Best Buddies and was paired with Ashley. We would go bowling, go shopping, go to dinner, just hang out. I led exercise classes and a women’s health class. Then I started going to the Center to have lunch with the folks, help out as needed. If they had any kind of parties, I’d help. Then when I did a service-learning project in school I really got involved. I was on a unified team for bocce ball in the Special Olympics. We recently received a grant for an after-hours program, which is what I’ll be focusing on this coming semester. We’re planning a St. Patrick’s Day party, fun things like that.
Why is it important to you to support your community in this way?
I want the individuals at the center to feel important. They really can do whatever they want to do. It takes them a little longer and they need help, but then they can accomplish anything. I want them to feel appreciated. So many people don’t know how to react to someone who is different. Start with a smile and hello and you’ll see how easy it is.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your volunteer service?
Because some of the people I work with are non-verbal, there are communication barriers and articulation difficulties. This can be frustrating for them, so it’s important to understand triggers and develop a relationship over time.
How have you grown personally through your service?
I feel like I’ve gained a lot more respect for people with special needs. My passion for working with them has grown. I’m more aware of how I treat them. I’m also more aware of how others look at them, and I try spreading that awareness.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
I’m going to be getting my masters’ in health promotion and I look forward to promoting a healthy lifestyle at LEC and implementing new health programs.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
The main thing I learned from volunteering at the life enrichment center is that we are more alike than we are different. Because they have this disability doesn’t make them weird. No one is perfect. They have feelings just like us. There are things they can do that I can’t do. If we just dismiss them…then nothing is going to get fixed.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Natalia? Visit All For Good to find local volunteer opportunties.