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Bonnie’s Golden Rule

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Treat one as you would want to be treated. This is probably the first rule that you were ever taught. In my Kindergarten classroom, we even had a bright golden poster that reminded us of this rule every day. Many of us forget about this rule as we get older, but not Bonnie Christensen – she embodies this rule with her whole being.

As I walk into Opportunity for Independence Inc. and up their narrow and very long staircase, I am greeted by some of the sweetest people you will ever meet. When I ask if anyone is interested in being featured on the oh so famous MA Voice, the head of the non-profit says, “You want to talk to Bonnie; she is perfect for this.” I wait in the hall until Bonnie greets me with an amazingly inviting and warm smile. “I would love to! We love MA!” Bonnie says this without ever being to MA which is a testament to her positive attitude.

 

Source from Opportunity for Independence.org

Bonnie (second from the right) with Opportunity for Independence Inc. leadership. (Source Opportunity for Independence.org)

Bonnie Christensen is the STEP Program Manager at Opportunity for Independence; she works with adults with physical and mental disabilities, teaching her participants the skills to be part of their community and gain independence. Bonnie firmly believes that physical disabilities are not indicative of mental or intellectual capacity; in fact, many people with disabilities, have high levels of capacity. Bonnie explains,

“We sometimes forget that everyone has intelligence, everyone has thoughts and abilities and wants and needs and whether we can actually understand those, or verbalize them or communicate in other ways that don’t make them go away. So we just need to find a way to understand these needs and realize how valuable it is to just treat someone as the intelligent person they are. And I think that’s huge.”

It is admirable how Bonnie believes in the best in everyone, regardless of backgrounds; she believes that everyone is capable of rising to her high expectations.

Bonnie’s affinity for learning and teaching life skills to people with disabilities started far before her career at Opportunity for Independence. As a young child, she was exposed to the world of special education through her mother who taught students with disabilities. Bonnie recalls, “I’d get to go and hang out in her classroom and meet her students. And so I had that early background. I really grew up in this field. I grew up, with a lot of great mentors and learning a lot about what goes into our work and why we do it.” She truly embodies a lifelong desire to help others succeed.

As we continue our conversation, we leave the specifics of Bonnie’s career and move onto a discussion of our cultural tendencies to subjugate people with disabilities. Bonnie’s first experiences with people with disabilities is a driving force in her moral philosophy. She recalls the children in her mother’s and her own school’s special education programs and how segregated they were from the rest of the school community. Bonnie explains, “For me, growing up it was always like the special ed classes were separate from us. [It was like] they’re different, they’re not like us. And there was no integration.” This is part of the problem that Bonnie is trying to solve, we must allow all people to be integrated into their respective community.

Soon after we discuss the situation of isolationism Bonnie’s problem-solving nature shines through as she has many suggestions; “ [We need to] take them out of this stigma of your special needs to, ‘Hey, you’re a member of this community as well. You deserve a job.’ I would hate if someone told me, ‘I’m sorry, you’re going to go clean tables rest of your life because that’s what you’re capable of .’ It’s like, but I’m capable of more, you know.” Bonnie walks through life with one golden rule – treat others as you would want to be treated. She does what she does in order to give people the respect that we all deserve. Her ability to empathize with different lived experiences makes her such a special part of the San Rafael community.

Bonnie is an example to all of us; her dedication to equity is inspiring. She is able to use her experiences in order to truly change worlds. Many of her participants are now able to build friendships, careers, and have the independence that they deserve. In return, Bonnie humbly admits that the experience with her clients is reciprocal, “ People sometimes believe that I am selfless and that I have so much patience for my work. Honestly, I get a whole lot from what I do here.” The relationship between herself and her participants has been the driving force in allowing her to grow and has been the main reason that she has been in this field for nineteen plus years. 

When I asked her what makes everything worth it,  she takes a moment to reflect on her experiences at Opportunity for Independence and then pensively responds with, “There are definitely days where you just want to be like, you know what, I have no patience for this. I really need to just go do what you’re supposed to do. I don’t want to talk to you right now, but that’s not really an option and [I] remind myself that everyone has a voice, everyone has wants and needs and they want to express themselves. And I don’t have a right to stifle that because it’s not easy for me to decipher or get through. It’s about understanding each other and allowing these voices, these experiences to have a platform.”

Bonnie lives her life treating her participants how she would want to be treated and this has changed not only her life but those of her participants as well. Some of her participants are now able to form friendships which would not have been a conceivable possibility a year ago. Another participant can now speak in full sentences and has conversational skills which are amazing accomplishments. This is all attributed to Bonnie and her Golden Rule.

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