Paulette’s Gift

Cover story, Fayette Woman, August 2008

There are some people in this world who are truly outstanding individuals, who are blessed with more than their share of determination, desire and sheer tenacity. They refuse to be held back by social conventions, stereotypes, or the discouragement of others. Such individuals are inspirations to the rest of us; we watch them shape their lives, and, by extension, change the world around them through their simple belief in the possibility of doing so, even as they are oftentimes unaware of their quiet power. We admire them for their courage, their honesty, their passion, their refusal to give up. We look to their examples, learning by watching them that we, too, can be stronger, more determined, more passionate, while they—the passionate ones— continue to perform the daily miracle of living life on their own terms.

Paulette Bass is one of those rare individuals. As a 62-year old developmentally disabled woman, she has spent her life fighting to be treated as a normal person. A few years ago, she joined a local club, the High Noon Toastmasters of Fayetteville (part of the international Toastmasters organization), whose members write and deliver speeches in order to become effective public speakers. Over the course of four years, and with the help of her mentor, Carol Lunsford, Paulette wrote and delivered the ten speeches needed to earn the prestigious “Competent Communicator” badge of Toastmasters. She subsequently became the first developmentally disabled woman in the history of the 226,000-member organization ever to earn this achievement.

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Paulette Bass is smiling. She is walking down the hallway of the High Hopes group home, where she lives with several other developmentally disabled residents. She comes toward the sitting area, where I am sitting with Carol Lunsford; we have just finished our interview for this article. “I made something,” she smiles, speaking in her characteristically slow drawling voice. “It’s a present. For you. And one for you.” Paulette hands an object to each of us. I examine my gift: it is a simple decoration in the shape of a house, made of yellow and black yarn stitched across a plastic frame. The windows are white yarn rectangles, while a light blue rectangle at the bottom makes a door.  Carol has one too, woven out of different colors. I am speechless at the thought of the patience and the careful work that went into its creation. I think of how Paulette made this for me before we had ever met, and how incredibly kind and generous a person she must be to do something so thoughtful. I look at Paulette and thank her, telling her how much I love her present. Her eyes shine with pride.

This is the “new” Paulette. The “old” Paulette might not have had the confidence to create a gift and proudly present it to someone she’s just met.  The “old” Paulette may not have even been able to sit down and tell the story of her life to me—not because she was unfriendly, but because she was so shy that she could not easily interact with others. Reid Spearman, a longtime Fayette resident and member of the Westpark Toastmasters club, recalls meeting Paulette for the first time about 20 years ago.  “She was painfully shy, and just about every time I saw her she was practically hiding behind a man I believe was her older brother. You could speak to her, but you would get very little back but that shy smile. Eye contact was also difficult. I think she felt very self conscious.”

Paulette’s lifelong shyness is likely as much an effect of her upbringing as it is due to her disability. She was disabled from birth, and her childhood was spent in a number of different towns and cities in the South because her father changed jobs and relocated the family several times.  In 1962, when Paulette was about sixteen years old, her father received a job transfer to a facility under construction in a brand-new planned community south of Atlanta—Peachtree City. Hers was the ninth family to move here, and it wasn’t long before her father became involved in the community as one of the charter members of the first Presbyterian Church and, later, the president of the Pioneer Club.

During late 1940s and 1950s, when Paulette was a child, special needs education as we know it today simply didn’t exist. There were few schooling options for Paulette; for a time, her parents had to employ tutors and even sent her to a school in Texas for students with special needs. When her family moved to Peachtree City, they first tried to continue her education at home. However, J.C. Booth, who was then the Fayette County Superintendent of Schools, learned of the situation and placed her in a classroom in one of the public schools.

Paulette’s initial excitement at being in school with her peers quickly turned to disappointment, then worse. Although she was sixteen years old, she had been placed in a sixth grade classroom, and almost immediately she became the target of the other students’ cruel jokes and comments. This was an extremely difficult period of her life, one that even to this day affects her deeply; she cannot talk at length about her past without repeatedly returning to her memories of the unhappiness and heartbreak she has felt because of her peers’ cruelty.  Paulette persevered and endured eight difficult years, graduating from Fayette County High School in 1970 at the age of 24.

In October of that same year, Paulette entered the Warm Springs Rehabilitation Training Center, a program that would assist her with the independence of adulthood. She stayed there for a little over a year, returning to Fayette County in early 1972 to begin work as an assistant teacher’s aide at the Kenwood School (the Kenneth Miller Center). There, she helped developmentally disabled children in a variety of ways, such as helping kindergarten children learn to read. (One of her current High Hopes housemates, Scotty, was once a kindergarten student of hers.) Paulette spent fourteen years working with the children of the Kenwood School, but had to leave after the position was eliminated in 1986.

Since then, Paulette has worked for a number of other employers willing to hire persons with special needs. Currently, Paulette is employed with Fayette County Options, a program offered by the county’s Department of Human Resources that offers a sheltered workshop for the developmentally disabled. She is also a greeter on the weekends at Glendalough Manor, where she enjoys welcoming guests (she especially loves seeing all of the beautifully dressed people as they celebrate happy occasions). She participates in Fayette County’s Special Olympics Program, and volunteers for distributing food with Meals on Wheels. Aside from her busy work and volunteer schedule, she keeps up with her collections of Barbie dolls and Special Olympics medals, and enjoys making crafts.

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In 2004 Paulette joined the High Noon Toastmasters club of Fayetteville. One of the club’s members was Carol Lunsford, whom Paulette recognized as a former co-worker in Fayette County’s special education department. She asked Carol to be her mentor in the club, and Carol agreed, although she privately thought that the most Paulette would gain from the experience would be to have more social interaction. However, “Paulette had different ideas,” Carol says. “She watched and listened as seasoned Toastmasters presented prepared speeches. She applauded when a new member gave a beginning speech. She helped count ‘ahs’ of the speakers. [When a participant delivers a speech, the person counting “ahs” keeps track of the number of times the speaker interrupts his/her speech with an “ah” or an “uh.”]  She counted votes. She helped set the room up for a meeting. Finally she asked me when would she give her first speech. The rest is history.”

With Carol’s assistance, Paulette developed and delivered ten speeches over a period of four years to the members of High Noon Toastmasters. Her various subjects held a personal interest for her, such as a researched speech she gave on the children of Guatemala (a subject that piqued her curiosity when a relative adopted a child from that country). Another speech, entitled “9-1-1,” told the story of the day Paulette had to call an ambulance after seeing her elderly mother collapse. Every speech involved careful preparation—concepting the subject matter, writing out the text (with Carol as her scribe), revising it, practicing it, and finally delivering it in a public meeting of Toastmasters. As Carol notes, “Creating and presenting ten speeches is difficult for someone without disabilities. For someone with disabilities it is unheard of. Until now, that is.” Alan Reyes, the President of High Noon Toastmasters, finds her tenacity remarkable. “Once she set her mind on becoming a Competent Communicator, like a junk yard dog she would not let go.”

On March 25, 2008, Paulette Bass made history. She stood at a podium at the front of the Fayetteville Library’s Public Meeting room, which was crowded with members of local Toastmasters clubs and other members of the community. Speaking in her slow and sometimes halting voice as she addressed the standing-room only audience, Paulette delivered her tenth speech, written with the goal of inspiring others. It was her personal story of becoming a member of Toastmasters, relating the difficulty she has had with learning to speak publicly and explaining how she has faced these challenges and overcome her fears. But it was also a declaration of the transformations that have taken place within. “I am a leader,” she asserted. “I volunteered to do the club’s scrapbook. [I have] confidence and am being artistic with speaking out…Toastmasters has been that leadership for me.” She finished her speech with a challenge to the audience to overcome their fears as well. “What about you? What are you waiting for?” she asked. The crowd erupted in applause, with audience members beaming at her, some smiling through tears. After several Toastmasters officials honored Paulette by awarding her the Competent Communicator badge, Peachtree City’s Mayor Harold Logsdon approached the podium. He announced that he had issued a proclamation naming that day to be Paulette Bass Day in Peachtree City and bestowed upon her honorary lifetime residency status for Peachtree City.

This, the culmination of four years of work and effort, is Paulette’s gift to the world, proving what can be done with passion, determination and perseverance. But more important than any award, than any day named in her honor, is what Paulette herself has pointed out: the effect that her experience with Toastmasters has had upon her growth as an individual. As Reid Spearman has commented, “The first time Paulette walked into the Westpark Toastmasters meeting I was astonished at the differences in the ‘new’ Paulette. She walked up to me and shook my hand. She spoke to me first. She looked me right in the eye…It’s an amazing transformation.”

Paulette continues to inspire those around her. “Her speeches speak to my heart and soul,” says Tom Lunsford, Carol’s husband and a fellow member of Toastmasters. “Each one I’ve heard leaves me admiring her determination and courage.” Mayor Logsdon, who knows firsthand how daunting public speaking can be, notes that “Paulette’s joining Toastmasters and delivering ten speeches should be an inspiration to everyone that determination and dedication can overcome whatever challenges we face.”

Mayor Logsdon is right; Paulette’s story has much to teach us. By the example of her life, she shows us that courage, determination, passion and dedication bring about greatness. Although she was born with the odds against her, she has redefined her life. From a past of hiding behind others, from shyness and silence, she is now standing at the podium challenging the rest of us: “What are you waiting for?” And in spite of a youth marked by more than her share of sadness and hurt, her sweetness is still intact, and her loving and generous spirit is still strong.

When I sit down to write about her, I look at the little yellow house decorating the space above my desk. I think of the time, the effort, the patience required to make it. The house is simple. It is unique. It is beautiful. It is a gift from Paulette.