Leah Shaffner ’19 Writes Grants, Develops Resources at the Walla Walla Valley Disability Network in Walla Walla, WA

Fruit Loops for Dinner

“It’s okay to let your kid eat fruit loops for dinner on those nights when you have had enough. It is important to take care of the care provider.” These were words of wisdom offered last night at an Autism parent support meeting. Other parents expressed frustrations about constantly explaining their child’s differences to people at the grocery store (“I’ve got the stare-back down”), to the doctor, and even to extended family members. I heard stories of families working to raise a child in a world lacking understanding and compassion, “they’re always looking at what is wrong with him; what about what’s right.

This meeting was one of the many support meetings, trainings, and social events that the Walla Walla Valley Disability Network (WWVDN) hosts every month. The organization works with families in the community who have children with disabilities to help them access resources and achieve a high quality of life. Over the last nine months that I have been interning for the WWVDN, I have been wholeheartedly welcomed into the community. I attended the Autism support meeting last night out of both personal interest and curiosity, and as part of my internship to present a project that I have been working on for the last few months. Despite my lack of credibility as a twenty-one year old, childless student, I was welcomed into the community of the Autism support group; parents listened to my questions and gave me advice. Last semester, I wrote a grant for the WWVDN to create care notebooks. Care notebooks are designed for families who have kids with new diagnoses of disabilities to help organize paperwork and to learn about relevant resources. I created a care notebook with information relevant to the Walla Walla Valley, and last night I presented it to the parents in the Autism support group to ensure its relevance to parents (again, as I am a twenty-one year old, childless student).

The process of this care notebook is symbolic of the connections with the Walla Walla community that I have built over the last nine months. I have learned about the many resources that Walla Walla has to offer its residents and abut the needs that parents of kids with disabilities. The WWVDN has given me the opportunity to truly feel ingrained in the Walla Walla community.

A further example of these connection came last weekend. I attended the WWVDN board of directors retreat in which the board members created their strategic plan for the next three years. This was truly an incredible experience. I arrived, expecting to sit in the background and observe the event, but I was treated as an equal member of the team. I was included in discussion and given the space to ask questions and provide input. Furthermore, I felt as though I had input to provide after nine months of participation in as many support meetings and trainings as I can fit into my schedule.

While I may only be a twenty-one year old, childless student my internship at the WWVDN feels like real work. It energizes me and makes me excited about the possibilities of my future careers. I have learned more about myself, the community, and about the essentials in life through my internship, than I ever have in my academic career—like the acceptability of fruit loops for dinner.

Experiences like Leah’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Victoria Wolff


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