George Dobson: Do Small Things with Love

I met George Dobson in 1979 when we opened the first group home for individuals labeled as “multiple-handicapped” in Vienna, VA. George used a wheelchair for mobility and had full use of one hand. His other hand was atrophied and curled into a fist, and he couldn’t use it. Had he received physical therapy for his cerebral palsy on a consistent basis, he might have maintained use of the hand.

In any event, it took George hours to get himself dressed, but he persisted, doing absolutely everything he could do by himself with patience far beyond any I possess or possessed. In fact, when I broke my arm in 2001 and found it so difficult to do anything, I remembered how George would use one hand to loop his belt through his pants before putting them on. And that reminded me that my broken arm would soon heal, whereas George’s hand was forever atrophied.

George moved into the group home after decades of living in a state institution for people with mental retardation and physical disabilities. Ours was a 12-bed group home, and George was one of six persons residing there with perceived physical and mental disabilities.

Having lived most of his life in a state institution, George never had the opportunity to cook a meal for himself, make and pack a lunch, wash dishes, handle money or buy personal belongings. After he moved into our home, the social worker at the home during the day shift spent months attempting to secure a new wheelchair for George, pulling strings and contacting everyone she knew.

Finally, during a long three-day break from my work there, I learned that she’d succeeded. When I returned to work, George greeted me with a gleeful expression and half-smile. I assumed he was tickled about his new wheelchair. Instead, what he said to me was, “Look at my new lunchbox that I bought with my own money. I made a bologna sandwich with mayonnaise, all by myself, so I did.” Like the social worker who’d accomplished the impossible, he could not have been more delighted with himself.

A professional might suggest this story illustrates George’s lack of intelligence and inability to understand that his new wheelchair and the feat of his social worker held the greater value. My understanding is that George valued his own success, doing something for himself that had been denied him for so long. He’d missed the opportunity to do many of the mundane tasks we take for granted. I too want to take pride in doing the little things with the patience and persistence that George had.

Thank you, George. As Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

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One Strong Arm by John McCutcheon

One humble shoemaker
 From a small Polish town
 One of twelve German children
 His life seemed so small

One heart rent with sorrow
 As the Church closed its door
 “A priest needs two hands
 To embrace all the poor”

One strong arm to hold you
 One firm hand to shake
 One clear voice to guide you
 One good heart to break