She always gets up earlier than she needs to. Jillian has to be at Northern Kentucky University by 9. That means taking the Metro bus to downtown Cincinnati at 7:05, and transferring to the Kentucky bus that drops her at work at about 8:45.
So why am I getting this text, at 6:48:
“OK, I am on the bus. I can’t wait to work.”
Five years ago, the former NKU men’s basketball coach Dave Bezold inaugurated the grandest of experiments. He’d seen Jillian around campus, where she was part of a trailblazing program that allowed students with disabilities to attend college. Dave also knew of Jillian through my writing in the newspaper.
He asked her if she wanted a job managing the basketball team.
Dave had a family history of helping people. His dad Frank made a lifelong habit of opening his home to folks in need of a break, be it a few days away from mom, dad or spouse, or a longer stay. Frank Bezold’s home was a haven for what he called “strays.” Dave recalls sleeping on the couch in the living room as much as in his own bed.
Jillian wasnt a stray. But she was someone who could use a break. Dave was attracted to her spirit. Here was this young woman, maybe 4 feet, 10 inches tall, walking around campus as if she’d built it. As early as middle school, Jillian’s nickname was The Mayor, for the ease with which she interacted with peers and teachers.
With help, Jillian learned to fit in as a manager She folded towels, mopped the floor, filled water bottles. During games, she did all that, while trying to maintain a professional objectivity when “her guys” were on the court. The relationship between my daughter and the team developed slowly at first. Players admitted they’d never spent a lot of time with a person born with Down syndrome, if any time at all. The interaction was slow and hesitant.
Then Jillian started rapping.
She announced one day at practice she wanted to learn to do the Dougie. Her manager cohort, Danny Boehmker, gave here a few lessons, and she was off. Being a member of the JV dance team in high school didnt hurt. After about a week, Jillian auditioned for her team, after practice. The players hooted and hollered.
Jillian continued to perfect her rapping, going so far as to design her own raps to involve specific team members. It became popular enough, Dave Bezold declared every Friday, post-practice, to be Jillian’s rhyme time. He gave her a time limit by setting the shot clock (35 seconds). The players gathered at center court, entirely obscuring Jillian — J-Dog to them — who stood in the center of them all, rapping.
That was five years ago. Since, Jillian has completed 30 credit hours at NKU, received a certificate of graduation and inspired other parents to believe their kids can also go to college. The job continued after Jillian’s school days ended. It continues today, even though Dave Bezold lost his job after last season.
Jillian works 30 hours a week in the NKU athletic department, making above minimum wage. The four-bus, to-and-from takes more than 3 hours a day, and requires a change in downtown Cincinnati, something I wouldn’t be smart enough to negotiate.
From NKU, Jillian gets a job and the acceptance, respect and responsibility that comes with it. From Jillian, NKU gets a loyal and dedicated employee, whose approach to life is infectious, instructive and memorable. Jillian gives as much as she gets, and vice versa.
Isnt this how the human transaction is supposed to work?
She got up at 5:30 Monday, just so happy to be headed back to work after a summer off. A little too early for the 7:05 bus she’s supposed to be riding. We might have to talk about that.
Expect. Don’t accept.
Thanks for reading. Read more about Jillian’s job and life in my memoir about her, An Uncomplicated Life.