By Cori Miller
Yesterday morning, I got a soda before work. The sun had barely risen, yet I found myself inside a convenience store feeling like a fizzy fountain soda would be a phenomenal start to my day. I checked out and found that the usual $1.27 I had in my pocket had dwindled down to $1.26, and I realized that for possibly the first time in all my years, I reached to the little tray of pennies on the counter for that extra penny. “Have a penny leave a penny. Need a penny take a penny.” A simple tray, just sitting there, meant to be a place to leave a little extra just to possibly help the next person along. I needed an extra penny, not much, and when I grabbed the penny I needed, I walked smiling to the car thinking of this wonderful start to a day.
By the time I got to my car, my smile had dissipated, and I found myself thinking about the Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD) event I had recently attended in Washington, DC. It was an amazing event sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America in conjunction with the Religious Action Center (RAC) that brought together so many amazing people, all of whom easily recognized the value that every person can add to a community. But the lobbying component of the program was there because people with disabilities continue to be a marginalized population. I dishearteningly pondered if the seemingly selfless act of leaving a penny was maybe more selfish than selfless, and served more to make one’s own pocket lighter, rather than to make someone else’s day a little easier. That we might just still have a lot of work to do in our society, which tends to be more selfish and less selfless. That our country continues to be one that needs events like JDAD to bring so many dedicated people together to lobby for the rights of people with disabilities.
I learned a lot at JDAD. I learned that we are short sighted when it comes to supporting transitions for people with disabilities, transitions like school to work, family living to independent living. I was reminded that we don’t always enforce laws that assure that everyone receives a good education, which is essential to learn the skills needed for work, which is essential to earning money to become more self-sufficient. I learned more about the flaws of the Medicaid program that I could ever have imagined. We clapped at JDAD for employers who seek to train and employ people with disabilities, and we do this because it is the exception and not the norm. It stopped me in my tracks when Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth poignantly explained that the only reason that she, as a Congresswoman, can roll her wheelchair on the floor of Congress is that years earlier, people with disabilities climbed the stairs of the Capitol to fight to create the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
I realize that most often when people leave a penny in the penny tray at 7-Eleven, it is more to empty one’s pocket than to actually help the next person. But I hope that one day this small act will more glowingly represent a world that values caring for everyone and subscribes to a philosophy that believes that when you’re truly a good person, you care about and value others, those who are similar to you, and those different from you as well. But the best part of JDAD for me was walking in and seeing a Camp Harlam camper participating in the day just like me. In this case, this child is far too exceptional for me to imagine that anything about her experience at camp is what fueled her passion for advocacy, but it still was special that we could join together in advocating for a better world.
Cori Miller is Camper Care and Enrollment Manager at Camp Harlam. She lives in Ambler with her husband and children and is thankful every day, especially since she never went to overnight camp, to be a part of the Harlam community.