A typical day at DAP (Developmental Activity Program) begins when MJ Rigler gathers clients and staff together to review the day’s agenda. In the process, she alternately doles out information, answers questions and intercepts the clients’ quips with a few of her own. It’s a familiar routine that serves to set the tone for a busy day ahead.
A five week practicum at the Developmental Activity Program (DAP) was MJ’s introduction to the Association. The practicum was a requirement for completion of her diploma in Community Rehabilitation. Working with the handicapped was not always in MJ’s plans. She initially took the rehabilitation course in an attempt to learn how to deal with a family member who required special care. On completion of her practicum, though, MJ knew immediately that she wanted to work in the program. Now, eighteen years later, she is the manager at DAP and oversees the program with a practiced hand.
MJ was born and raised in Grande Prairie and has memories of her walks to school as a young girl. She would walk right by the Peace School of Hope and remembers that it was surrounded by a big fence. Many days she would notice a tall, skinny boy with big blue eyes standing and looking through the wires of the fence as she passed by. Years later, she would come to recognize that the young boy watching from the fence so many years ago was Barry Ferguson, one of the first students at the Peace School of Hope.
In her early years at the Association, MJ’s home and work life often overlapped. She regularly invited clients to her home for barbecues on weekends. MJ’s family got used to being around people with handicaps and her daughter Holly eventually ended up working in the woodshop for a time.
When first working with the clients, MJ was not always at ease. She recalls her first meeting with Mark Lancaster. “He scared the life out of me.” She was taken aback by his loud screech but soon relaxed when she was learned that he was just expressing his excitement at seeing her.
There were many adjustments for MJ to make while learning to work with the handicapped. Each client presents a different challenge. MJ recalls a client who liked to run away at every chance he saw. She would have to chase him and it worried her to find him out in traffic. She went to AMA, taught him street safety and says that it helped him tremendously.
Eighteen years at the Association has included many challenges, some quite serious. MJ will not soon forget an instance in which she was physically attacked by a male client. MJ recalls that she didn’t have the strength to push him away and it was even difficult for three staff members to stop him. She suffered three broken ribs when it was finally over. When discussing the episode, MJ refers to it as a risk that is present in the work, but not something that would deter her from continuing.
MJ describes learning non-verbal communication as another challenge to the work. She says that at first it can be very difficult to understand clients, but over time the process becomes much easier. Each client has a unique method of expression that can be “learned” by staff over time.
MJ has seen many changes in terminology over her career with the Association. She prefers to refer to the organization as the Association for the Mentally Handicapped rather than it’s latest title, Signature Support Services, simply because the long standing Association’s name makes it easier for the public to know what the organization does. “Retarded” is another word that she does not think is acceptable to use. Instructors in her rehabilitation course strongly discouraged the use of the word “client” to refer to individuals receiving care. During earlier years with the Association, MJ tried to change her co-worker’s use of the word. Repeated efforts during staff meetings just weren’t effective. She now regards the word strictly in terms of a reference to the fact that the clients are paying for services.
I try to use “people first” when I am talking about them. People before the handicap. Because they are people first and their handicap is second.
Several people have passed away during MJ’s time at the Association. She says that it is very hard to lose clients; very much like losing a loved one. “They work their way into your heart.”
Considering all the ups and downs along the way, MJ doesn’t hesitate with her answer when asked about her career choice almost two decades ago. She is happy that her life has taken this path.