Not Just Another Job
by Mark Baechtel
Life, as John Lennon famously said, is what happens while you're making other plans. Witness the career of Karry Koon-Carr '84, who after graduating with an English degree and spending some years working with Head Start and in various human services jobs, was "looking around for something else to do" when she signed on seven years ago with Skills of Central PA, a State College nonprofit agency.
At first blush, her job running a day program for developmentally disabled adults seemed much like other helping-profession jobs she'd held. But it turned out to be the beginning of her life's work, and the reason she received one of this year's $20,000 Joseph F. Wall Sesquicentennial Service Awards.
As manager of adult training services, she was to help adults with developmental disabilities acquire the skills they needed to work in sheltered workshops. As she discovered, though, the people who came to her for training often needed much more than that.
"Time published a story a while back on autism that quoted one person as saying that, for a person with autism, the act of striking up a conversation with a stranger is an extreme sport," she says. "Many people with disabilities are isolated and lonely, and despite the rich resources of a college community, State College offers few opportunities for people with disabilities to socialize, meet new friends, or explore new interests."
Karry and other agency staff responded to this dismal reality by founding "Skills and Friends," a social club designed to "break the cycle of isolation and loneliness" in which too many of her clients and their families felt mired. Through its daytrips, picnics, parties, and dances, the program - which has limped along on $2,000 to $3,000 a year and has depended on volunteers - has succeeded beyond their initial expectations.
"A lot of people are forming friendships they never had before," says Koon-Carr. "And people who've been a part of the club for a while can now welcome generations of newcomers to the club, because their level of comfort and their ability to talk to other people has just gone through the roof." Karry says Skills and Friends also gives many family members of developmentally disabled people a break from the stress of being caregivers, and the joy of seeing their loved ones develop a measure of independence.
Karry intends to use the Wall Award to add to the Skills and Friends mailing list, expand fundraising outreach, and increase the organization's event offerings from one to two per month. She's particularly excited about a trip to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., that's on tap for the fall.
Seeing disabled adults in her community make real progress through their Skills and Friends membership has paid off in very personal ways for Karry.
"I've seen that I can make a significant difference in people's lives," she says. "That fuels my desire to do more. This is my calling, and I believe, the purpose of society, for all of us to care for each other."
Not bad for something that started out as just another job.