Her face covered in avocado green facial cream, Daisy Washington raved about her best friend, a college student almost half her age.
“She’s cool. I like her. She is a good friend and she spends time with me,” Washington said.
Washington met her friend, Marci Gaines, through Best Buddies, a program that pairs men and women like her, those living with intellectual disabilities at the North Lake Support and Service Center near Hammond, with college students at Southeastern Louisiana University.
They hang out in big groups, going to SLU Lions baseball games, eating snacks and watching movies.
“When I met Marci,” she said, “my life had changed.”
For their April get-together, Southeastern’s Best Buddies members met at the North Lake campus, a former Department of Health and Human Services state school that is privately run by Evergreen Life Services. The men watched movies and danced to Michael Jackson songs in one room, while the women had facials and manicures.
In the auditorium, Evan Huff, a Southeastern junior, sat on the edge of a stage next to his buddy, David Orcutt, and watched the dancers.
“You like my moves?” Orcutt asked, wriggling his arms in a waving motion and making Huff smile.
Working with Orcutt and the other residents has given Huff a “different point of view of disability,” he said.
“It’s just a great way to help with the community,” he said.
Hanging out with the residents has helped change the way junior Kala Smith views those with intellectual disabilities. At the facility during the Best Buddies event, she calmly painted the nails of residents, blowing on the polish to help it dry.
Smith said she focuses on being non-judgmental and just enjoying her time there.
“You really can’t help it at all,” she said. “People either baby them or put them beneath them.”
The student director of Best Buddies, Gaines advocates for those with intellectual disabilities. She worked with a group similar to Best Buddies while in high school in Amite, and when she came to Southeastern three years ago, she volunteered with the group and became heavily involved.
“I love it. It’s everything I do,” Gaines said. “It’s become my passion.”
Aside from spending days with Washington and other residents at North Lake, Gaines has become vocal across the Southeastern campus in her campaign to educate students and faculty about the harsh meaning of the “R word” — retarded. The word has fallen out of use for doctors and professionals when describing someone with an intellectual disability, and for many, the word is a synonym for “stupid” or “odd.”
“When you’re unintentionally using it, a lot of people don’t understand (the harm it causes),” Gaines said. In the past, the term “mental retardation” was widely used by advocates for the intellectually disabled, doctors and even Special Olympics, said Kirsten Seckler, vice president of branding and communication for Special Olympics. The correct use of the word focused on the person, not the disability — instead of saying a person was mentally retarded, it was correct to say a person had mental retardation.
But in 2000, athletes from Special Olympics requested that the organization stop using “mental retardation.”
“They thought it was perpetuating the use of terms like retard or retarded, which are pejorative,” Seckler said.
In 2004, Special Olympics began using “intellectual disability” at all times, and many organizations followed. The federal government stopped using “mental retardation” in 2010, according to Seckler.
Last month while in class, Gaines heard a faculty member at Southeastern use the word in class in a joking manner. During the class discussion about roles within the family, the “professor began to share a personal story; she was describing her sister as being the controlling, bossy, older sibling I’m sure most of us can relate to,” Gaines wrote in a blog post about the incident. “She ended her story by making the comment, ‘Do any of you have a retarded sister, too?’”
Gaines was appalled.
“I think I almost blacked out when I heard her say it, I was so angry,” Gaines said.
Instead of fainting, Gaines wrote the professor an email and then wrote a blog post that was featured on the Best Buddies Blog.
“Having an intellectual disability does not define who Daisy is,” Gaines wrote in the email. “The demeaning use of ‘R-word’ is just another barrier ... Daisy and others like her face every day. People with intellectual disabilities can accomplish great things.”
The teacher wrote an apology that touched Gaines, and the blog post spread through social networks Facebook and Twitter.
“It had a really positive impact because it helped people understand it is OK to speak up in a professional setting,” Gaines said.
While Gaines and the Southeastern students say their work with Best Buddies improves their attitudes and broadens their worlds, the residents say they enjoy it, too.
“We listen to music, have cookies, chips and drinks,” said Lashida Lavigne, who showed off her glittered nail polish.
“It’s interesting, it’s different.”
Many residents spend most of their time on the 100-acre North Lake campus, though some do leave for jobs in the community. Hanging out with their Southeastern buddies helps prepare them to leave and work, said Josie Serigne, a Southeastern freshman.
“They know these people don’t get to do things like this,” said Serigne. “This makes their entire day or week when we come.”