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Washington County woman says disability helps her REACH her clients

April 29, 2008|By JANET HEIM

HAGERSTOWN -- Jill Parker knows firsthand how profound the impact of people in helping professions can be. Born with spina bifida and paralyzed from the waist down, she walked with leg braces until second or third grade, then began using a wheelchair when the braces no longer functioned for her.

Through that experience, she's benefited from the assistance of doctors, physical therapists, vocational counselors and social workers.

While a student at Smithsburg High School, Parker thought she wanted to be a teacher. That changed, though, after volunteering while in high school at the Washington County Family Center.

Parker decided to pursue a degree in social work after her 2001 high school graduation. After two years at Hagerstown Community College, she transferred to Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., from which she graduated in 2005.

She plans to start graduate studies in January 2009 through Salisbury University's program at University System of Maryland at Hagerstown.

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While a college senior, Parker returned to the Washington County Family Center for a three-month internship and decided her ultimate goal was to work with children. Fresh out of college, though, she said she was pretty open to any kind of social work job and found what she was looking for at REACH.

Parker, 24, has worked there for 2 1/2 years as a resource specialist, which allows her to live at home with her parents, Jim and Joanne Parker, and save money.

"It's always interesting," Parker said of her job. "I like working one on one with people - that's my area. It's definitely the relationships you form that make an impact."

Her job is to provide a sounding board for REACH guests and clients and to pair them up with the community resources they need. She said a listening ear, whether a REACH employee or volunteer, is one of the strengths of REACH.

Parker, who drives a car specially equipped with hand controls, said being in a wheelchair actually helps her in her job. She said many of the people she works with face their own disabilities whether mental illness, addictions or physical limitations.

They can relate to Parker because she knows what it's like to live with a disability. Having had to navigate community services for herself is an added bonus.

"My experience with resources in the community has helped me steer them in the right direction," Parker said.

Parker said in the future she'd love to see a mentoring program for REACH clients that would enable them to have one person who would check in on them on a regular basis. That's a dream, though, that would require building a new volunteer base, Parker said.

Parker said it's the little things that make her job rewarding, like when a client recently thanked her for listening to his problems.

"You respect them, they'll respect you. That's a general rule for anybody," Parker said.

The other highlight is the "awesome people" who volunteer and the staff members she works with.

Parker has an older sister, Jessica, who lives in Mercersburg, Pa., with her husband and 1-year-old son. In her spare time, Parker likes to spend as much time as possible with her nephew, working out at the gym and reading, especially mysteries and suspense novels.

For more information about volunteering at REACH, call 301-733-2371 and leave a message.

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