Jenny Diggins is a book walker.
She volunteers in Morgan’s Tales Used Book Store at the Stanwood-Camano Community Resource Center. The 23-year-old picks up donated books from a bin at the front counter and carries them across the room to the back office, where she sets them on a desk to be sorted and shelved later. She carries the books one at a time and pauses to rest before going back for another.
It might sound like an easy task. But for Jenny, who didn’t take her first steps until she was 12 years old and wouldn’t grip something for more than a moment up until last year, every trek across the small store is an accomplishment.
Jenny, diagnosed with cerebral palsy, is severely disabled. She has vision problems, limited mobility and can’t talk. She spends much of her time in a wheelchair and communicates using a iPad program that has different large pictures she can touch to have a voice say things like “I’d like to go to the bookstore to do my volunteer job” or “Hi, Debra, how are you today?”
Debra Kibler, an employment specialist for adults with disabilities, has worked with Jenny since December 2012. She’s with Village Community Services, an Arlington nonprofit that helps people with disabilities find the resources they need to be more independent at home, in social settings and at work, including volunteer jobs.
Kibler’s motto is “patient, kind, consistent,” and it has yet to fail her. Given time, compassion and stability, anyone can learn new skills and grow as a person.
Still, it takes more than Village to make a difference in the lives of families like Jenny Diggins’, she said.
Sherwood Community Services in Lake Stevens and the Arc of Snohomish County helped set Jenny up with technology: iPads that let her speak and big red buttons so she can trigger recordings of people reading pages from her favorite children’s books. She works with Therapeutic Riding in Stanwood and with an adaptive fitness trainer at the Marysville YMCA to improve her mobility. The Stanwood-Camano Community Resource Center found a niche for Jenny to volunteer as a book walker, and the Stanwood library has given her a new volunteer job during children’s story time. Jenny pushes her buttons to read parts of the stories as another librarian or volunteer holds up the book and turns the pages.
She’s come a long way from the preteen who couldn’t walk on her own and the shy high school student who struggled to wrap her hands around an object and hold on.
“It’s taken a lot of different programs to come together to get Jenny where she is,” said Suzy Diggins, Jenny’s mom.
Jenny went to school in Stanwood and when she graduated, her family and mentors were told that she had “plateaued” and it was unlikely she would ever be able to do a task that could be considered a job.
It can be easy to see such comments as the end of the road instead of an obstacle to overcome. Suzy Diggins wondered what she would do with her daughter to keep her healthy and happy, to make sure she had social interaction and a purpose in life.
Andrew Urie, with Sherwood Community Services, saw the plateau as a challenge.
“Jenny’s story, it’s not done,” he said. “But it’s amazing to see how far she’s come since two years ago.”
The tricky part is finding a way to keep the routines Jenny has grown comfortable with and push her a little more each day. Having the ideas, observations and support of a network of people makes that easier, Urie said.
Jenny’s dad Joe Diggins wants his daughter to have as much independence as possible. More than anything, though, he wants her to be happy, to find fulfillment through work and friendships.
“As the parent of a special needs child, to see her with other people and know other people care, and to see her build her own relationships, is so special,” he said.
Michaella Diggins, Jenny’s stepmom, has seen her do more than they ever thought possible. Jenny’s mobility and social skills have grown immensely over the last few years. She can walk on her own and interact with people. This summer, she was a bridesmaid in her stepsister’s wedding.
The volunteer work as a book walker gives Jenny purpose, Michaella Diggins said, and the job is “a really good match for her and her current abilities.”
Jenny’s family and mentors believe those abilities still are growing. The so-called plateau that worried them two years ago is nothing more than a memory. Jenny never ceases to surprise them.
Shortly after starting her work with Jenny, Kibler told Joe Diggins she’d read children’s books out loud during their session and Jenny had turned the pages for her. He was shocked.
“I just looked at her and said, ‘Jenny can’t turn a page,’” he said. “But no one told Deb that, so she turned the page for Deb. Just having someone pushing her with no mindset of ‘can’t’ but focusing on the ‘can’ is really powerful.”
It’s hard sometimes to focus on the can-do’s instead of the can not’s for people with disabilities, Jenny’s parents said. Changing their daughter’s life took family and friends, educators and experts, donors and dedicated volunteers.
They’ve all become part of Jenny’s village.
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more or contribute to organizations that help Jenny and others with disabilities, go online to:
Village Community Services at www.villagecommunitysvcs.org.
Sherwood Community Services at www.sherwoodcs.org
Arc of Snohomish County at www.arcsno.org
YMCA of Snohomish County at www.ymca-snoco.org
Stanwood Therapeutic Riding at www.facebook.com, search “Stanwood Therapeutic Riding”
Stanwood-Camano Community Resource Center at www.stanwoodcamanoresources.org