Everyone can party on the high seas
Volunteers lead cruise vacation for adults with developmental disabilities
Between the off-shore adventures, on-boat activities and all-you-can-eat buffets, it's no wonder cruises are such a popular vacation activity. But what is just a fun side trip for many people can be a greater challenge for people with developmental disabilities.
Pleasanton resident Sue Johnson knew this first hand from her work as a case manager at the Regional Center for the East Bay where she helped adults with developmental disabilities, such as mental retardation, cerebral palsy and autism, find supported or assisted living options in the Tri-Valley. Wanting to give these adults the chance to go on a vacation and experience the fun just like everyone else, Johnson began organizing a vacation program in her free time with the help of other volunteers. Now, 17 years after the first trip, she just returned from leading a group of 26 adults and six volunteers on an 8-day cruise to Mexico, making this the program's 12th expedition.
"There's nothing like seeing the joy in the folks and their growth as they see that they can do things like anyone else," Johnson said.
While having a good time is at the heart of the program, it also benefits the participants by giving them a chance to learn that they can do the same activities as everyone else.
"They learn a lot of independence," Johnson said. "They participate in activities they want, talk to other people, interact and just have a good time. They learn they can have a vacation like anyone else that's not just a camp."
Realizing that, despite the fact these are independent adults, going on a trip away from nearby family members and caregivers maybe be a daunting prospect--perhaps even more so for the family who will worry while at home--Johnson originally recruited participants who she knew through her case load at the Regional Center for the East Bay. That way, family members could feel secure that their loved ones were with someone they knew and trusted.
Now that she is retired, many of the participants come from the case loads of the program volunteers, all of whom also work with people with disabilities. That's not to say that others cannot join--they can--but they must first go through an interview process with Johnson so she can make sure it is a good match.
Janice Ochoa, a volunteer who has worked with Johnson on these trips since the beginning and still works as a case manager for the Regional Center of the East Bay, said the community aspect of the cruise vacations is part of what makes it such a special trip for the participants.
"These cruises are with people we know, people we have relationships with, and the big bonus is that the folks who go already know each other or get to know each other during the cruise time and then maintain those friendships because they will still see each other," Ochoa explained.
Although cruises are the most popular trips now, the first vacations Johnson and Ochoa organized were actually trips to Disneyland and Yosemite. It wasn't until Johnson and her husband went on their own cruise vacation that she got the idea to expand the program. The first cruise was a 5-day trip leaving from Los Angeles and traveling to Catalina Island and Ensenada and Mazatlan, Mexico. Johnson and Ochoa were the only two advisors on the trip, supervising 17 participants. Although it was exhausting for the two, it was also a lot of fun, Johnson said.
"It's a little more structured now," Johnson said. "I serve more like an administrator now and don't do direct care needs, and we have the regulars who come back, so people learn from them. It's a lot easier than the first one and I'm older, so that's a good thing."
Since that time, groups have gone to several stops in Mexico, Bermuda, Hawaii, Jamaica, the Caribbean, Central America and New England.
For the participants, the vacation is an experience of a lifetime and that is part of the joy of being on the trips, Ochoa said.
"It's a party," Ochoa said. "The sky's the limits for them. It's something they look forward to months before and talk about months afterwards. Some of the folks have lived somewhat sheltered lives, some not so much. They may have traveled with family, but it's different when you travel with family or friends, and most of our folks can't travel with friends because they need some support. That's where we come in. On the trip, we're all friends traveling together."
Being on a cruise ship also provides a unique opportunity to interact with new people in a way not available on other vacations due to all the onboard activities, such as talent shows and karaoke nights, Johnson said.
"The hidden thing in all this is others on the cruise learn how to accept folks with disabilities," Johnson said. "Most people are accepting, some are not as accepting, but most turn out being great ... the other people on the ship see that our folks are like anyone else. They just want to have a good time and that's one thing I wanted people to see, that folks with disabilities are pretty great."
Ochoa said one of her fondest memories from all 12 trips was a talent show during the Jamaica cruise when one of the participants brought down the house with his Elvis impersonation.
"He had a standing ovation--he was the grand final--and there were at least a couple thousand people in audience," Ochoa said. "People were just going crazy. I'll never forget that. It was really fun."
Although they just got back from their last cruise, Johnson has already started planning the next. Usually it takes about 18 months to get everything in order, ranging from big things like picking the next location to smaller details like assigning roommates. The time frame also allows the participants enough time to save money for the trip, which usually costs a little more than $1,000.
And, despite all the work, it's no wonder Johnson is ready to start planning the next cruise the second she's back on dry land.
"All of us come back with a high," Johnson said. "You're tired, but it's a high."
Get on board
Those interested in joining the next cruise can contact Sue Johnson, firstname.lastname@example.org or 846-4537.