Citizen Advocacy helps bring those isolated because of their disabilities into the community by pairing them with an advocate. There are 65 ongoing relationships, with several now into their fourth decade.
Jackson, who also had Parkinson’s disease, died in June, a month before his 86th birthday. Spornberger misses him still.
Bill Jackson (left) and Russell Spornberger at the Original House of Pancakes during one of their excursions in May 2019. During their adventures, they often sought out "hole in the wall" restaurants, cafes and BBQ joints and other well-known diners around the state. Courtesy of Russell Spornberger.
“Their relationship was so meaningful. It added so much enrichment to Bill’s life, and gave him an opportunity to go some places,” said Judy Powell, Jackson’s primary caregiver and wife of Jackson’s cousin, Eugene Powell. “We’re just so grateful to ‘Mr. Russell’ for how he made time for Bill.”
Looking back, Spornberger is amazed that he could make such a difference in someone’s life. “I’m probably the least likely to do something like this,” he said.
In the beginning, Spornberger wondered if he would need special training, but then realized the only requirement was “just to be a human being.”
“Just open up your heart a little bit and give the gift of time,” he said. “To me, that was the key. It was just time spent doing things together. There was nothing hard about it, and it turned out to be a lot of fun for me. And I know Bill enjoyed it. We had a lot of fun.”
Bill Jackson pictured at the Stone Mountain Park Quarry Exhibit in April 2016. Russell Spornberger and Jackson, friends for eight years, took many day trips around Atlanta and beyond, visiting museums, historical sites and parks. They shared a common interest in American history. Photo contributed by Russell Spornberger.
Advocates are not volunteers, stressed Executive Director Derona King. “People are intentionally matched. It starts with the person with the disability, and getting to know that person drives the work,” she said.
The disabled are often segregated from society – placed in nursing homes or day programs – and King will search for the most vulnerable and get to know them. Age is no factor; she’s recruited for babies and up to an 80 year old.
From there, their core values and interests are put in writing, and the search is on for someone in the same community who would make a good match. Rarely is an invitation to be an advocate turned down.
“People have an amazing capacity to be unselfish,” King said. “We meet people who are often in a hard place, and we say to the potential advocate, ‘Look with us through a different lens. You’ve received an invitation to walk with someone.’
“It’s not about fixing something, and certainly not about fixing someone, but aligning ourselves with someone; bearing another’s burdens.”
Board president Paula Rafferty said vulnerable people are safer when they’re around others who care for them. The friendship raises their stature in the community and changes the way others see them.
“They’re not seen as their disability, but rather seen as a friend,” King said.
Media consultant Nwandi Lawson is entering her sixth year as an advocate and friend to Laura, a decisive “go-getter” who loves dance and wants to work.
The two enjoy seeing dance performances and once took dance lessons together. Pre-COVID, they often dined at restaurants and shared family events, like birthdays. “We’ll be friends for life,” Lawson said.
Advocacy relationships ebb and flow, but most stay connected, even if it’s only in a limited way. Several of these friendships have been going for decades. However, discrimination toward the disabled hasn’t changed much during that time, King said.
“We know it’s an emotional battle,” she said, “you might not move the pendulum, but standing alongside that person is more powerful than anything else that can happen.”
Bill Jackson at the Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus in August 2016. Jackson and Russell Spornberger took many day trips around Atlanta and beyond, visiting museums, historical sites and parks. They shared a common interest in American history. Courtesy of Russell Spornberger.
WHAT’S INSPIRING ABOUT BILL JACKSON?
From Russell Spornberger:
Jackson spent his early years in Decatur and Marietta. As a young man, he worked at both the Loews Grand and the Fox theaters in Atlanta. He loved reading, especially history, and watching old movies. And he loved America, its promise of freedom and equality for all.
He always wanted to serve in the military and was proud of his relatives who did serve. One uncle was shot down during the Korean War, and another relative served on the USS Reuben James during WWII.
Spornberger put together a YouTube video of their adventures through the years. It can be seen here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLxH3MkYHUE&t=9s
MORE DETAILS ABOUT CITIZEN ADVOCACY OF ATLANTA AND DEKALB
The pandemic has limited Executive Director Derona King’s ability to go out and find new proteges. Still, many of the ongoing advocacy relationships continue their friendships through video calls.
To get involved or offer financial support: www.citizenadvocacyatlantadekalb.org/
During their first year of day trips, the men enjoyed Mule Day in Washington, Ga. Pictured here, is Bill Jackson in October 2012. Russell Spornberger and Jackson, friends for eight years, took many day trips around Atlanta and beyond, visiting museums, historical sites and parks. They shared a common interest in American history. Courtesy of Russell Spornberger