Volunteering at MS Swim– Where’s the Activism??

Starting off at MS Swim, I genuinely did not think of it as a form of activism. I have volunteered routinely at various organizations since I was 14, and it has just become a way of life for me. However after going through this course, Studies in Feminist Activism, I have come to understand the true activism that takes place through volunteer work.

To give a bit of background, MS Swim is a program run under US Against MS, a volunteer organization designed to give Multiple Sclerosis patients the care they deserve. MS Swim has biweekly sessions where patients receive aquatic physical therapy totally free of charge. Every Sunday, I arrive at the YMCA in Catonsville and immediately adopt the role as the therapist. We get in the pool and when they are ready, we begin our exercises. These exercises are techniques taken from physical therapists who have told us which exercises are the most efficient for the symptoms MS patients experience. Through our hour of work, we stretch them and reduce their stiffness, which long-term can reduce pain, and potentially reduce stiffness enough that their mobility improves. After our session, we get out of the pool, and my role changes into more of an occupational therapist. I help the patients get undressed and ready to shower, making sure they have everything they need. More importantly, I am there in case they become unbalanced and fall, since the floors of the changing rooms are usually wet. Then after showers we get them dry and changed back into their clothes, and head to the social aspect of MS Swim. All of the patients and volunteers get together after the session and eat and talk about anything and everything. This is where my role changes into a friend, listening to them and making conversation.

What I don’t think many people understand is when it comes to chronic physical disability, it’s much more than just a physical issue. It also affects you mentally and emotionally. When you have mobility issues it becomes harder and harder to get out of the house, leaving you alone and lacking vital social interaction. When you have vocal cord dysfunction, it becomes harder and harder to talk on the phone. The isolation you face can be crippling. Something our coordinator always says is the social component of the program is so much more important than the physical component– and that can’t be more true. We’re helping them get the social interaction every human deserves to have, and to help break the cycle of depression and isolation.

If you look into the logistics of the program, the way it benefits the patients monetarily is also hard to ignore. Medical bills for the chronically ill are through the roof, and it becomes harder to pay for them when you are unable to work. Even though these patients may have disability benefits, or could qualify, it doesn’t come close to covering the bills they have to pay. And if the condition is progressive like MS, expect those bills to get worse as the disease progresses. Considering MS Swim is 100% free of charge, this helps cut down these massive medical expenses, especially since physical therapy tends to be a long-term treatment/management. Having Us Against MS there helps relieve the burden of these costs while still giving proper treatment to those who need it.

My specific goal starting out for this organization was to provide these patients with the best possible care and treatment of their condition through not only physical relief, but also emotional and mental relief. I would say I completed what I had set out to accomplish. It’s hard to say my job is “complete”, because I don’t think it ever will be. The work of an activist is a never-ending battle, and this is where I learned what activism really is. It isn’t just chaining yourself to the mayors Maserati, it’s using your life as a vessel for positive change, whatever you want that change to be. I have been an activist all along, using my time and energy to make the world a better place. If you think narrowly, being in charge of the vegetables at the local soup kitchen may not look like this huge declaration of social change. But thinking expansively, you’re helping to feed the bellies of 50 whole people. That action is combating hunger in a country full of greed, proving that we have plenty of food to feed everyone. You’re combating homelessness, malnutrition, and demanding the minimum wage becomes a living wage, so people with jobs can also afford to feed their families.

So the next time you want to be an activist but don’t have that set of iron lungs like myself, or the charisma that convinces people that a protest should take place: think more broadly. Go volunteer, and make a positive change, one hamstring stretch at a time.

If you’re interested in learning more about US Against MS and the work they do, visit this link: http://www.usams.org/

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