These Cincinnati neighbors created community with a pop-up dog park
How a young man with a developmental disability inspired his family and neighbors—and their pups—to build new bonds
When I was a teenager, I had conversations about finding my passion and purpose in life. But what do those conversations look like when people don’t know what you can contribute and believe you should be segregated from the rest of the community? Rather than the words “passion” and “purpose,” I heard the words “skills” and “training” to describe my brother’s future when he was 17. Instead of looking at colleges, he was learning how to sort pieces by color so he might get a job in an adult workshop.
My mom first felt the differences between my future and my brother’s as he approached the end of high school. After exploring day programs for adults with disabilities, she knew my brother’s life was meant for more than sitting in a recliner or putting things in buckets, but she didn’t know if that was possible for a young adult with significant developmental disabilities. What does our society have in store for him? My family realized the first step to achieving a better future for my brother Troy was not to try to change society, but to change the conversation about his future.
We asked people in my brother’s life, “What are Troy’s gifts?” One of Troy’s caregivers shared a story of taking Troy to see her father who was ill. She told us that the only times she saw her father laughing at the end of his life were with Troy. Her father even asked, “When are you bringing that kid over again?” Someone else shared that when she took Troy to a store he became enamored with a woman in line and kept reaching out for her. We often narrate as we go to help Troy better understand what is happening and others understand what he is doing, so it was second nature for the caregiver to tell the woman, “He likes you and wants you to say ‘hi.'” The woman said she had a terrible day and was feeling as if no one liked her. Troy can touch the lives of others while he is simply living his daily life. As we began to identify Troy’s gifts, we came to see clearly that they revolve around his loving, accepting, positive personality. Troy’s presence is a gift in itself that should be shared.
Now that we listed Troy’s gifts, next we needed to find a way for him to meet new people and put those gifts to work. Again, we had to change the conversation. How was it possible for Troy, a young man who doesn’t speak, to make a positive impact in his neighborhood? We decided to ask our neighbors what they needed. Many people mentioned that our community could use a dog park. A dog park—what a great idea! Troy loved spending time watching dogs at other dog parks in the city. A dog park in our neighborhood would give him the opportunity to meet people and share his positive energy.
One of the neighbors interested in the idea hosted a brainstorming circle. This was the beginning of Clifton Pop Up Puppy Party, or PUPP. Immediately, everyone stepped up to offer ideas and abilities. A graphic designer created a logo and flyers, an architect designed the temporary fence layout, the local hardware store donated materials, a skilled carpenter constructed free standing posts and gates, while other neighbors distributed flyers and advertised on social media. This was community building!
Over 50 dogs came to that first spring event. My brother was thrilled to have so many dogs running around him. His joy was contagious. Troy brought the neighborhood together, bonded by their shared love of dogs.
A few days following the first PUPP, I saw neighbors posting on social media about how incredible Troy is. I cried when reading a post from a woman I had met less than a month prior, because she so beautifully described how she experienced the joy that Troy brought and how everyone rallied together so quickly to make Clifton PUPP happen.
Troy’s passion was the spark for PUPP and through the process he shared his gifts with others and gave many more the opportunity to share their own joy with their neighbors.
When we first thought of helping Troy share his gifts through a community project, we imagined this idea to be a success if Troy made one single connection in the process. By those standards we have had an abundant success. Not only has Troy made connections for himself, but he has connected others with each other. Troy’s purpose is connecting people in his community.