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Three Important Lessons from Two Years at First Place

I recently celebrated my two-year anniversary at First Place. During that time, I’ve watched the organization grow from an energized start-up to delivering on its vision as a global thought leader in neurodiverse housing and community development—all while weathering a pandemic! Most importantly, I experienced firsthand the impact of First Place–Phoenix on the lives of residents and their families.

For as great an impact as I have seen, the residents of First Place have taught me even more. My relationship with them is unique. I am a humble accountant—part of a finance team that my colleagues refer to as “mission control.” My interactions differ from those of our support staff, who work directly with residents every day. I’m also a millennial, which means most of the resident population and I are peers.

I see them go through a lot of the same struggles I go through and enjoy a lot of the same things I enjoy. I see them heading off for work in the morning and aspiring to what’s next as I’m walking in to start my day. I also perceive what’s different—not in physical appearance or cognitive ability, but in opportunity.

Many First Place residents lost their jobs when COVID-19 hit and businesses scaled back or shut down. I come home every day to a loving spouse while many residents are still searching for someone who will love and understand them. My parents are comforted knowing I can take care of myself so that as they grow old, they don’t have to worry about me. And I appreciate that many First Place parents are still fighting for a world that provides equal opportunities for all with neurodiversities to live and thrive.

These similarities and differences have taught me three important lessons:

  1. Life is a shared experience.
    One day, I was in the property manager’s office discussing a needed repair. It was one of those days where I had a ton of work to do and not enough time to do it. The office door was open and a resident walked by.

    “Hey, John,” I said. “How was your day?”

    “Not good, man. I had a bad day at work, man,” he said.

    “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “I’m having a bad day at work, too.”

    “You are?!” he replied. “Oh man, we are both having a bad day at work, man!”

    I wasn’t trying to make him feel better, but knowing I was also going through some struggles made him walk away smiling. Sometimes all we need is to know that someone else understands.

  2. The world needs to adapt to a neurodiverse population—not the other way around.
    Many First Place residents have lost their jobs during the pandemic because they were employed in industries most affected or in entry-level positions. Yet many of the residents I know have talents far beyond the requirements of their job. I’ve yet to win a game of Scrabble or Connect4 against any resident. I’ve seen their beautiful artwork that adorns our halls. I’ve listened as they talk about their most recent obsession and recite incredible amounts of memorized information. Neurodiverse people have a wealth of ability; it’s just a different type of talent and the world needs to get better at allowing them to use it.

  3. We take life too seriously.
    Several First Place residents love receiving mail (our mailman Bill has celebrity status!) and when it doesn’t arrive on time, they get upset. First Place’s mental health coordinator helps them gain perspective and to appreciate that the mail will also come tomorrow. Those same residents shout with joy when they finally get that job they wanted or smile with glee when they answer a question correctly during our Friday afternoon Jeopardy games.

    There are days when I find myself griping. My day didn’t go as planned. My wife is upset. My dog is sick. Yet it only takes a smile to turn it all around. You may think that the mail coming late is no big deal, but we all make little things seem bigger than they are. Next time you find yourself complaining, remember to live in the moment. The next moment could be better than the one you are in now, and the one after that may be even better still.

I’ve been so thankful to be part of First Place over the past two years—and I’m excited how, in many ways, we’re just getting started.

Mitch Barr is the finance and planning coordinator at First Place. He and his wife Rachel live in Glendale with Wrigley, their golden retriever.

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