Sunday, June 26, 2005

How Big is Your Frying Pan?


I live in the State of Minnesota, a place that takes special pride in calling itself the Land of 10,000 Lakes. With so many lakes in Minnesota, fishing is a very popular past-time and summer leisure activity. Hey, some people even like to ice fish in the winter months during sub-zero temperatures! For this reason, I like to tell a fishing tale that I believe has instructional value about honoring the career choices of youth and adults with significant disabilities. OK, here is my story...
Early one summer morning, two Minnesotans went out to their favorite watering hole to go fishing. One fisherman was an elderly gentleman in his mid-seventies, and the other was a younger man in his late-twenties. It was a quiet, beautiful morning on the lake and no other anglers were out there testing their luck except for these two early risers. The two men exchanged a pleasant hello and each sat on a side of the wooden dock that provided a full view of the other’s activities.
After approximately 15 minutes had past, the elderly fisherman had a strong strike on his line. He worked hard and reeled in a large lunker. He unhooked it and slowly he released the big fish back into the lake. It was a pretty good sized eating fish so the younger man was somewhat surprised that he had chosen to release this prized beauty. Paying little attention, each went back to his business at hand.
Another 15 minutes had past and the elderly man had another strike on his line. However, this time the fish was very small and barely worth his effort. The younger man watched in amazement as old fisherman unhooked his catch and placed this tiny fish into his bucket. Hmmm, this was curious. For some odd reason, the elderly fisherman chose to keep the tiny fish he had just caught.
After another 15 minutes had elapsed, the old man had another strong hit on his line. This time he reeled in another very large, trophy size fish. The large fish offered a great fight and was definitely worthy of taking home. However, the elderly fisherman released the hook and tossed this prized catch back into the lake.
After 15 more minutes had passed, the old man reeled in yet another fish. This catch was rather puny. Yet surprisingly, the older gentleman unhooked the fish and dropped it into his bucket of "keepers." By this time, the younger man was watching his elder's fishing tactics with a great deal of curiosity. He was absolutely astounded by the elderly gentleman’s judgment.
The two men continued fishing quietly for almost three hours. And this well-established pattern repeated itself time and again. Whenever the elderly man caught a big fish, he released it back into the lake. And every time he reeled in a tiny fish, it was deemed a keeper.
Finally, the young man’s curiosity got the best of him. He could no longer fish in silence. He rose from his position and walked over to interrogate the elderly gentleman. "Sir," the young man said, "we have been out here fishing together for several hours now. And I couldn’t help but notice that you continue to release these large, beautiful fish back into the lake. Yet, every time you reel in a small catch, it’s a keeper. Frankly, I just don’t get it. What gives here?!"
The elderly gentleman smiled at the young man and said: "Oh, this is very easy to explain." He raised both of his hands and extended his index fingers to approximately 3 ½ inches apart. The old man replied: "You see son, I have a very small frying pan back at home."
I love to tell this parable to new professionals who are just joining Rise as job placement specialists or employment consultants. I ask them to consider the "fish" as a metaphor for the career dreams or job wishes of the many people who come to our agency seeking employment services. And further, I ask them to consider the "frying pan" as our organization’s creativity, strengths, and capacities that are required to hold and support the dreams of our individually unique participants.
I remind our new staff about Rise’s remarkable history and where we have come from. I tell them about our early beginnings in the 1970s, when people with significant disabilities had only four or so jobs that they could choose from within our sheltered workshop. They could do assembly, bindery, packaging, or warehouse jobs. And what if they had other job interests? Well, it really didn’t matter. We had no real program capacities or staff resources to meet them. Our early vision was quite limited about the job potential of people with significant disabilities. Simply said, this was the entire range of work choices that Rise offered until 1976.
At this point, I go to my props. I take out my 3 ½" cast iron frying pan. And with my free hand, I place a 10" rubber fish over the top of the pan. With the head and the tail of the rubber fish hanging over the sides of the tiny frying pan, I tell our new staff: "That was then."
While I have their undivided attention, I reach below the table for my 15" frying wok. And I take the same 10" rubber fish and place it into the wok. This much larger frying pan holds the big fish quite comfortably. And I tell our newly hired staff: "This is now."
And I challenge each of our newcomers with this fundamental question: "How big is your frying pan?!"
I tell each of them about Rise’s mission and our expectations concerning excellence. And I share with them that we are quite serious about the importance of delivering person-centered planning and employment services. I enjoy telling our new employees that we need for each of them to have a "frying pan" that is large enough to hold the dreams of the people they will be privileged to serve.
It must be working. In a recent survey report concerning our agency's accreditation, the CARF board of trustees commended Rise for its exemplary efforts in customizing employment opportunities in the workforce for youth and adults with significant disabilities. Our organization also received special recognition for its exemplary efforts in the area of staff development and training. Of course, these two recognitions of excellence are directly related.
At Rise, we are longer satisfied casting four lines and hoping for a successful day at the office. Our mission demands that we cast the widest net possible to meet the varied interests and unique talents of the people we serve. This is the new vision of Rise and a cornerstone that supports the important work we do.

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