Flinging Water Balloons at Bricks

By Andrea Suarez Martinez

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I tugged at the ends of the neon orange vest. I looked over my shoulder and spotted the white shirts sprinting. . . running. . . speed walking. . . well. . . just walking towards me. I briskly turned. Water balloons. . . check. Strings attached to trees signaling goals. . . check. Whistle that originated from a cereal box. . . check. I pull out my phone. . . 9:30. A chill ran up and down my spine, it was time. I simultaneously turn to see the crowd and... "Buenos días equipo blanco!" Nene screamed back at me but I couldn't quite make out what he was trying to say. Chucho threw his arms in the air. Jessy simply smiled, turned to the volunteer assigned to be her friend for the day, and gave her a hug. The volunteers--or as we called them, young friends--wore a nervous smile unsure of how to interact with their assigned friend with disability.

All the anxious faces ready to begin the workshop that marked the beginning of a three-week summer program were staring directly at me. It took me a few seconds to realize why: the neon orange vest. While I was half their size, the orange vest bestowed an unspoken power. I was a facilitator, a staff member; I was in charge. Not in a totalitarian manner; rather, I was responsible for transmitting Unidos' mission across to the youth towering in front of me. No, I was not giving them a PowerPoint presentation; I had the more daunting task of breaking down a socially constructed wall through a simple handball game.

A wall that was constructed when my aunt told my cousin not to point at a boy with Downs Syndrome. A wall that was constructed when volunteers failed to look into Ismael's eyes because they were more distracted by his wheelchair and the odd appearance of a man who is paralyzed from the neck down. A wall that was constructed when Hellen's mother thought she couldn't play in the pool because she is a girl with Cerebral Palsy. A wall that was constructed when your mother told you that he, a boy with autism, was "special." All of these walls made 'them' different than 'us'. I was not prepared to take on this influential position, I did not have the proper tools to take the wall down.

I stared back at the white shirts. Make two teams and head to your corresponding sides of the court. After giving a brief explanation of the game (try to score a goal without bursting the water balloon) I blew the whistle in hopes that they would start playing and their attention would no longer be focused on me. The game was about three minutes in, when I realized that the volunteers were treating their friends as small children instead of young adults. Holding hands, letting them score without a struggle, helping them grab the balloon. I stopped the game. New rule: we will play as individual players. I blew the whistle. Another minute went by. Our friends with disabilities were playing individually, but all the volunteers seemed to only be cheering from the sidelines. I stopped the game. New rule: We are all going to play the game to the best of our ability. Before scoring the goal you must pass the balloon to four different members of you team. . . and. . . you can only take three steps if you are holding the balloon. I blew the whistle.

Mission accomplished. They played competitively, playfully, and above all, as equals. The simple game turned out to be a meaningful tool in the complex task of integrating my volunteers with our friends with disabilities. I blew the whistle. It was time for the team reflection. "What did you learn in this workshop?". Teamwork, confidence, aim, agility, speed, respect. While most people were mentioning what might seem rehearsed answers that we have heard in school since we were little, I knew that I had permanently changed the way they perceive and interact with people with disabilities. As the white team headed to their next workshop, one of the volunteers was joking with Yoshi, a teenager with down syndrome, about the soccer jersey he was wearing. I realized that by simply having them toss a water balloon around, they were now comfortable to bond over soccer. Those 'special' people were now just people.

I looked over my shoulder and spotted the yellow shirts walking towards me. It was time to take down more bricks. Water balloons. . . check. Strings attached to trees signaling goals. . . check. Whistle that originated from a cereal box. . . check.