A Success Story in Recreation
O'Connor can't speak verbally, and O'Brien can't interpret his sign language. Instead, the two have developed their own method of communication - a combination of gestures and lip reading. But no words are necessary to see that these two bowlers share a great friendship.
Their friendship was forged through the Community Integration Program (CIP), which encourages, teaches and empowers individuals with disabilities by showing them how they can integrate better into the community through recreational and social activities.
In Good Company
O'Connor has participated in CIP for more than 30 years. "I don't know where to start and where to end," said John O'Connor, Mike's older brother. "His friends at CIP are so important to him. The other night they went to dinner for his 50th birthday. He came home thrilled and told me all about it."
John became Mike's primary caregiver after their mother passed away two years ago, and their father unexpectedly followed a year later. "When our father died, my life turned upside down and everything came down on me," said John. "I was so worried. But things worked out. If CIP wasn't available, I don't know what I would have done."
CIP provides Mike with the support he needs to stay active and maintain a social life in our community. CIP is the only recreation program for people with disabilities that provides critical door-to-door transportation support. A specialized wheelchair accessible vehicle picks Mike up to take him to the activity location, and then gives him a return ride home. In addition, CIP staff members provide the direct care he requires at all times.
While bowling is Mike's favorite CIP activity, the other activities are important to him as well. From sporting events like Buffalo Sabers hockey games to annual events such as the Allentown Arts Festival, Mike looks forward to choosing and signing up for the activities himself. "Without CIP, his life would be TV and that's all it would be," said John. "I know how much my parents were thrilled that he was participating. My mom especially was a huge advocate for the program."
Mike O'Brien, age 47, has participated in CIP for more than 20 years. Bowling is also his favorite activity. "I've learned over the years how to bowl using the ramp," he said. "It's not easy."
Without CIP, Mike O'Brien wouldn't get to see his friend, Mike O'Connor. "People call me O.B., I call him O.C.," said Mike. The two share a lot of great memories. They both attended Buffalo Public School #84, but they were in different classrooms and didn't know each other well. When they grew older they played sports together, such as the wheelchair slalom. And during the early years of their CIP participation, they were able to go on trips together to places like Las Vegas and Toronto.
Mike laughs when people ask who the better bowler is. "He is," he says. "It's a fun competition, and it's great to get the staff and drivers involved. They are our friends and they understand us."
Striking a Balance
In addition to providing individuals with disabilities the opportunity to become a part of their community, CIP also serves another vital function. It gives families and caregivers needed respite, reducing stress so that their family member may remain living at home for as long as they wish.
"Even though I have help caring for Mike, it's still my sole responsibility," said John. "The reality is that my life has completely changed. Outside of caring for Mike and working, I don't have time for much." CIP gives John a break for a few hours. He usually uses that time to relax or engage in everyday activities, like running errands.
A special CIP memento is on display in the O'Connor's living room - a pair of sunglasses Mike acquired during a Buffalo Bills game. "Mike was down on the field before the game started, and then quarterback Jim Kelly came over to talk with him. Mike came home with his sunglasses!"
But even more meaningful are the friendships Mike has formed, the fulfillment he experiences and his growing confidence. "The life CIP has given Mike, it's just...wow!" said John.