Ayla's Story: Connecting as a Volunteer
Intern Ayla Wagner prompts a player when his turn comes in a game of Uno.
Ayla Wagner, right, converses with Jon, who is deaf, by taking turns writing on a laptop.
Ayla Wagner, a high school senior who is an intern at Easterseals Passages, listens to Doug, who participates in programs at the Easterseals Passages Creative Learning Center.

Not long after her shift begins at Easterseals Passages, the card players beckon.

“That would usually be Jerritt,” Ayla Wagner said. “He’s the one holding up the cards usually. He’ll just look at me. He’ll pull up a chair, or he’ll tell me, ‘I got you a chair.’ ”

Four or five or six players pile in, often to play Uno. Sometimes Karen pulls up a chair, scrolling through a tablet computer, not playing cards, just enjoying the atmosphere and the company.

Wagner is a senior at Columbia City High School, and her afternoons in the Creative Learning Center at Easterseals Passages are a volunteer internship. Playing cards isn’t all she does there. She tries to put off the card-players long enough to greet each of the people at the CLC, pausing for a conversation with those who are talkative.

And she indulges the interests of those she works with in many ways. Sometimes that means singing and dancing. She’s painted nails and shampooed hair in the recently equipped salon room. She helps them with art projects. One day she accompanied them to Chain O’ Lakes State Park.

“She’s just a breath of fresh air. She really is,” said Stephanie Turner, the lead manager of day services and community supports at Easterseals Passages. She said the people who attend activities in the CLC “see staff every day. People coming from outside who aren’t staff and are interested in them is a huge thing. They feel like they’re more tied into the community.”

Jerritt, who first invited her to play cards, says people like Wagner because of “what she does with us, playing games with us, and what she talks about with us – her boyfriend and stuff. We love having her around.”

Nick often works on large K’nex projects, such as a 6-foot tower of rods and gears, holding miniature Ferris wheels that spin at the push of a button.

“I like her,” he said of Wagner. “She likes all the projects I do.”

Soon after she started at the CLC in January, Turner set Wagner to work on a project that introduced her to everyone there systematically.

Wagner began producing what she called “little spotlight pieces” on every person participating in programs at the CLC. “I’d ask everybody what their favorite color was, or food, or movie, or song, then I’d take a picture of them and get on Google Drawings, and I’d take it to school and laminate it. Then I’d hand it to them. They really liked that.”

Lori Heuer, who supervises student internship programs at Columbia City High School, said Wagner excels in her volunteer work at Easterseals Passages.

“I went into this thinking it was going to be a great experience for her, and it’s far exceeded my expectations,” Heuer said. “She’s really grown in her confidence level with the clients and coworkers. … She’s really taken this and developed it into an amazing experience.”

Wagner came to Easterseals Passages with advantages not every teenager would have. She’s spent time with many people with disabilities and enjoys being with them. Her boyfriend’s little sister has an intellectual disability, Wagner said, and she loves talking with her.

“I am in a school group called Circle of Friends. It’s in the classroom with the special needs kids. You’d have little parties … like a Valentine’s Day party where you decorate cookies or a Halloween party. You just do things with the kids there,” Wagner said.

When she makes the rounds at the CLC, checking in with everyone, there’s no predicting what she’ll see or learn about them. Angie might insist on showing off her freshly painted toenails. Tony might tell her the plot of his dream the previous night. Ron often shows her pieces of paper he’s gathered, pointing out colors and letters he likes.

After she graduates, she plans to attend Purdue University Fort Wayne. “I’m going to take classes somewhere in the fields of English or human services. I’m trying to figure it out,” Wagner said.

In the meantime, she’s grateful for her internship at Easterseals Passages.

“I think it’s definitely shown me more of what goes on in the community. I never knew about Easterseals Passages. It showed me more options about what I could do for work. You don’t need a whole lot of schooling to work there. If I wanted to, I could work there. That was helpful to know,” she said.