Weekly dinners unite students, mentally disabled

| Contributing Reporter

In the midst of the dinnertime bustle at South 40 House, a diverse group of students and members of the local community, including Washington University staff, sit down for a dinner that emphasizes unhurried conversation and meeting new people.

The student-run group Natural Ties organizes these weekly dinners to bring together community members with mental disabilities and Washington University students. Natural Ties dinners are held every Monday night from 6 to 7 p.m. in the rear of the upper level of South Forty House dining.

The large group consists mostly of students and community members with mental disabilities, but some parents and social workers also attend. Dinner is concluded with announcements, which provide an opportunity for participants to share personal bulletins such as birthdays, accomplishments and family news.

Additionally, participant Margi Brightfield teaches the group a new “sign of the week” in American Sign Language. The organization relies on donations of meal points from students to pay for the community members’ dinners.

Natural Ties, which operates under the Campus Y, hopes to encourage community members to develop bonds with Washington University students and with each other. Participants cite the opportunity to converse with a variety of people as the most valuable aspect of the program.

“It’s helping the community. There are those who need it and those who don’t…It’s good that it’s there for people of varying disabilities,” says John Casalone, a participant who lives in the area and has been attending the dinners for about a year.

“I love that persons with various disabilities can get together…it’s something that may be impossible given their disability,” says social worker Ron Glenn, who also comes to the dinners weekly.

The program benefits both students and community attendees.

“It’s great to come here and meet people. We’re very fortunate to participate,” says Wash. U. sophomore Austin Ekaireb, referring to himself and fellow members of the fraternity Sigma Alpha Mu, which has a history of participating in Natural Ties dinners, along with other Greek organizations.

Joanna Perdomo, a junior and one of three student program leaders, emphasizes the unique impact the program has had on her.

“We get to meet really incredible people. Working with people with disabilities has taught me how to live your life despite challenges…People are just so loving and willing to share their stories with you…The optimism and the happiness that everyone has is really inspiring.”

Participants also cite the announcements component of the program as especially instrumental in forming a community bond. Community members develop pride from the knowledge that a community appreciates them, Glenn says.

“It allows them to see themselves as people, not disabilities; it promotes that humanism,” he says.

The number of community participants has increased steadily throughout Natural Ties’s eight-year history, though the organization recently has not done any active recruiting.

Gathering enough meal point donations to fund dinners for community members has been a challenge. Natural Ties has worked with Bon Appétit to provide its participants with complete, balanced meals at a price that can be met by meal point donations. Each Monday, Bon Appétit prepares special deals that package together selected entrées, sides, a fruit or dessert, and a beverage.

Program leaders have also found that bringing together a diverse group of people that represents a variety of disabilities has sometimes required teaching participants about the different disabilities to ensure smooth integration. Perdomo says that she enjoys this aspect of the program.

Natural Ties remains open to new participants, including students and community members. Nathan Greenbaum, who has worked for Quadrangle Housing for over 10 years and has participated in Natural Ties since its inception, says, “We need more new people.”

In addition to its weekly dinners, Natural Ties hosts five special events each semester, including holding holiday parties, attending a Wash. U. athletic event, and eating dinner at Blueberry Hill.

Sigma Alpha Mu has also hosted barbecues for Natural Ties participants in the past.

Natural Ties is currently adding an educational component to its programming, discussing with its participants issues such as voting in local and national elections, the Special Olympics, and healthy eating.

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