While attending college, I spent two years working with a friends’ brother with Down Syndrome. I met with Michael twice a week to help him stay active by swimming and lifting weights. What started out as a way to help support myself while going to school turned into a wonderful friendship. I found myself missing Michael today and stumbled across a photo essay I did of him and the school he attended as a child, that at the time was having financial troubles. I shot the photo essay below for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette; below is the text I wrote to accompany the photos. Even though I was the one “helping” Michael, in the end he gave and taught me more about life than I could ever return in our time together.
Michael P. Zlody, wakes up every Monday morning tired, but ready for the day’s work and the week ahead. Just like most in their late thirties, he worries about his weight; and does what he can to stay in shape and stay away from that extra donut in the morning. He belongs to a bowling league, the Knights of Columbus, and enjoys an active life that includes time for dating, his family and the occasional word search. In most regards Michael enjoys a relatively normal life, despite the added bit of information on his 21st chromosome, which resulted in him being born with Down Syndrome. For many individuals of Michael’s generation being born with a developmental disability like Down Syndrome, would likely have led to a life of institutionalization or becoming a ward of the state. Luckily for Michael his parents had no such intentions and made sure that he had the same opportunities and expectations as his brother and sisters.
Being raised in a loving and supporting family environment did much to foster the independent spirit and lifestyle that Michael currently enjoys. However, his family was not alone in trying to raise a child with special educational needs; the Mercy Centre became an equally important and integral part of not only educating Michael, but providing him with the necessary resources to lead the life of a productive member of society. The Sisters of Mercy and Catholic Charities opened the school in 1960 and later started the Adult Services program for people over the age of twenty-two with developmental disabilities, providing a necessary alternative to the public school system and other state sponsored programs.
Michael started at the Mercy Centre thirty-five years ago, at the age of three, in the now discontinued preschool program, and after graduating he has worked twice a week in the Adult Services program. The school and the Adult Services program enjoy a strong sense of community within itself, and in the Worcester community. It is a place where students are provided an environment that has the necessary resources to foster their individual educational and developmental needs. The school provides all of the state sanctioned educational requirements, but is also able to provide unique and necessary additional supplements to the student’s general education and development in the form of speech, musical, physical, and occupational therapies. After graduating from the school program at the age of twenty-two students have the opportunity to join the Adult Services program, which helps to assist individuals with employment and provides a job coach/advocate, as well as providing a variety of program sponsored work opportunities in the community.
With the assistance of the Adult Services program and a Job Coach, Bruce Nelson, Michael has worked at the Goretti’s Supermarket in Millbury for the last ten years; his job duties include building maintenance, janitorial services, and bagging groceries. He currently lives with two other roommates in a Seven Hills Foundation owned home. Seven Hills Foundation is a non-profit organization that provides housing and advocacy for individuals with mental retardation and associated developmental disabilities in and around the Worcester area, along with a host of other programs to assist children and adults.
Michael and the greater Worcester community have had an invaluable resource available to them in the form of the Mercy Centre and its staff over the last forty-six years. Hopefully, with the continued support of families, individuals and organizations in the area, the school can raise the necessary funds in the next two years to continue providing a valuable and necessary educational and occupational service to the community. Without it, members of the next generation may not grow-up to enjoy as independent and productive a life as Michael Zlody.
I wrote the above text four years ago, and thankfully the Mercy Centre is still in operation today; thanks to the friends and families of the Mercy Centre and the community of Worcester.