October 24, 2018

Her son has a disability, so this mom is helping him create community through a simple gesture

A social movement in Cincinnati is connecting neighbors while helping to keep a young man from becoming isolated

Troy Gives A Duck encourages people to share positive messages with their neighbors and strangers alike. Photos courtesy of Troy Gives A Duck on Instagram

Social connectivity is a fundamental need. For a person with a disability, the risk of isolation can be great. As the mom of a 20-year-old with a developmental disability, I know firsthand the challenge of helping build a good life for my son Troy. I just keep thinking of ways that he can build community in Cincinnati and make a positive impact on our city.

Since Troy was diagnosed with Angelman Syndrome at age three, I have worried that he would be lonely as an adult and hidden away amongst people with disabilities. Troy cannot speak with words and needs a great deal of support in his daily life. As he approached adulthood, I called upon family, friends, and supporters to help me figure out how to ensure that he does not become insignificant. We decided to focus on Troy’s gifts.

[Read how Troy’s family helped create community by designing a pop-up dog park in their neighborhood]

Maggie, one of Troy’s caregiver’s, noticed something about the way Troy interacted with her dad, who was known to be grumpy, especially in his later years. Maggie would take Troy with her on her visits to her dad’s. Maggie said that Troy connected with her dad and made him feel appreciated, so much so that he would ask, “When are you bringing that kid back again? He’s the only one who really likes me.” This provided a clue to us about Troy. He is very accepting of others.

This is one of Troy’s gifts–to connect with people, to see their good side, to provide reassurance. Basically, he cares. But how could he use that gift to build a community and stave off loneliness? How could Troy, who cannot talk, communicate acceptance and belonging? We coupled his gift with one of his favorite things, little yellow rubber ducks, and put it together to create positive messages with a memorable twist–Troy Gives A Duck!

Troy and I were able to initiate Troy Gives A Duck when we received a project grant from People’s Liberty, a philanthropic lab that invests in the Cincinnati community by investing directly in its people. We were thrilled that they invested in Troy.

[Read how People’s Liberty invests in Cincinnati]

Troy Gives A Duck fights loneliness with kindness. It involves three parts: make a duck notecard, give a duck message—which is embellished with a duck gift—and share a duck experience on social media.

Make a Duck

Community building starts with Troy as he invites groups of people to a meetup. Meetups are designed for people to spend time together, have fun, make personal connections, and share stories in a casual setting while putting pen to paper to write positive messages. These can occur at public libraries, schools, breweries, universities, coffee shops, senior centers, civic gatherings—anywhere. The messages are words of encouragement for specific people or generalized messages of support for strangers.

Troy Melnyk, right, is the inspiration behind Troy Gives A Duck.

In the process, the people who show up to write messages share positivity and experience simple goodness. The messages are written on notecards and affixed with a piece of duck swag, such as a lapel pins, decal, or other object created with the project’s logo. Attendees leave with several message cards and duck gifts so that they can pass them onto people who need kindness. Sometimes, people even write general notes of kindness and leave them behind for Troy to pass out as he is going about his daily life, since he cannot write his own messages.

Give a Duck

The next level of community building is when the notecards are distributed. People are encouraged to give the kind messages to friends, neighbors, family, strangers, the guy who makes your coffee at the coffee shop—anyone they encounter who could use a kind smile and words of encouragement.

Troy also takes his share of notecards with duck gifts and distributes them, both at planned events in public places as well as random opportunities within his day-to-day activities. I love that Troy’s note-sharing experience develops community and starts to break down barriers among people who encounter him.

Share a Duck

To grow the initiative and its fundamental community building idea, those who get a notecard with duck swag can share on social media how they received the kind note, how they display their duck gift, who gave them the kind message, or how they felt when they got it. Likewise, those giving kindness through the notecards can share how they distributed their message and what their message said. As our society becomes more virtually connected through social media, we can’t forget to maintain personal connections. To this end, giving a duck notecard with a kind message will create real, person-to-person connections while at the same time generate interest through social media.

Already we have witnessed the contagion of kindness—people who receive a warm message and immediately want to pass it on. We’re steadily activating our community. A bank teller who we recently handed a message to went on Instagram to check out the project. There she saw how her best friend’s mother had posted about giving a message to the owner of a local coffee shop. We are slowly reinforcing community bonds.

This simple movement is creating community—at meetups and as people pass on their kind messages to whomever they encounter in their daily lives. Thanks to Troy, isolation ends where community building begins.

Learn how Cincinnati spreads kindness. Find @TroyGivesADuck in on social media or visit TroyGivesADuck.org.

Cassandra Clement

Troy Gives A Duck

Troy Melnyk is committed to eliminating the isolation of people with disabilities with a positive message. His mother, Cassandra Clement is a do-er. She loves meeting people and building community.