My dear friend and teacher Dottie Adams passed away on December 27, 2016 after a hard fought battle with cancer. I wrote this piece for the Celebration of Life we organized in Macon, GA May 6, 2017.
By: Caitlin Childs
Prepared for Dottie’s Celebration of Life, May 6, 2017
Centenary United Methodist Church, Macon, GA
Preparing my thoughts for today’s gathering was a lot harder than I had anticipated. I am not often at a loss for words, especially when it comes to the people I love and admire, but words truly feel inadequate in conveying all that Dottie meant to me and all the ways that I am who I am today because of the things she taught me. But I know I am in good company here, as I have a feeling a lot of you relate to that sentiment.
I first met Dottie in 2009 when I was hired at Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) to start a statewide community organizing program to bring people with and without disabilities together to work for social change and build relationships, friendships and opportunities for all people to contribute to our communities across Georgia. I had a background in community organizing but was basically brand new to the developmental disability system. My background is very non-traditional compared to many in our field and I was pretty intimidated and felt like a fish out of water in those early days.
Dottie bent over backwards to include me and welcome me to the staff from day one. One of my first memories of Dottie is that she contacted me twice after I had accepted the position but before I started. Once she called to ask if there were certain office supplies I would like to have on my first day and then the second time she called to profusely apologize that she would not be in the office to welcome me on my first day because she had found out she needed to have surgery – I didn’t know at the time that she had cancer but it did strike me as a little odd that she was apologizing for having to miss my first day to have surgery. And even then, Dottie still managed to welcome me on day one with the welcome sign she made for me and hung on my office door. I realized quickly how seriously Dottie took hospitality and making people feel wanted, welcomed and included.
She had a hell of a work ethic and her commitment to everything she did was undeniable. No task was beneath her and she showed up and said yes to just about anything that needed to be done. Though I was barely 26 and in great health when I started at GCDD, I was sometimes exhausted just listening to Dottie tell me what she had on her calendar each week! It was not unusual for her to be in the north Georgia Mountains in the morning, coastal Georgia in the afternoon and back home in Marietta to sleep for a few hours before getting up in the morning and working another full day. And this was while she was sick. I quickly understood that to Dottie, work was not just work. It was who she was and how she lived on or off the clock.
Dottie gave me a complete crash course in the technicalities on how to write contracts and navigate the administrative work at GCDD. We worked a few long days and late nights alongside Pat Nobbie as we applied for (and got!) a large Family Support grant from the feds, something that intimidated the hell out of me. I never would have pulled it off without her calm and steady guidance. Dottie was a planning and logistics genius. She could quickly break down projects or tasks that seemed massively complex and overwhelming to me and come up with a simple and often painfully obvious solution in minutes.
Dottie guided my early constituent calls from folks looking for resources for themselves and their families. She was a walking encyclopedia and telephone book. She clearly and as simply as possible explained the developmental disability waivers and the Medicaid system without ever getting frustrated that it took me quite a few repeated explanations before I began to kind of “get it”. Dottie taught me about the history of person centered work and family support in Georgia. She told me stories of the people and families she had met and supported over the years and took me to meet many of them. She painted a beautiful picture of what could be possible if we dreamed bigger and did our jobs well. She also gave me reality checks and wake-up calls of what happens when we don’t. I learned the system through Dottie but I also learned about how to creatively maneuver that system to support people with disabilities and their families in the ways they truly need and want to be supported. She had an incredible amount of integrity, never made excuses, and always did what it took to get the job done with heart.
Dottie never forgot a birthday and in those first few years I was at GCDD, she baked birthday cakes for every single staff member and brought edible arrangements of fruit in for me, a vegan. Then there was the year that Dottie made personalized quilts for every single member of the staff, even our two interns. She made what turned into 2 quilts documenting the first 7 community sites I supported at GCDD. I have never received such a thoughtful and deeply meaningful gift.
Dottie was a strong and often quiet presence but when she did speak, I quickly learned to shut up, listen and listen well. Our relationship helped to teach me the importance of quiet leaders and not to doubt the power and wisdom that they hold. In fact, I now pay extra attention and make sure to look for the quiet brilliance in the rooms I find myself in.
She was a patient teacher, never patronizing and always clear and direct and kind. She firmly but gently nudged me back on track when I strayed. I am not always as kind and patient as I aspire to be but Dottie loved me anyway and reminded me to go back to kindness when I got overwhelmed or frustrated. She also taught me to pick my battles but that it was always important to fight like hell when it counted.
But beyond being an awesome co-worker and role model, Dottie became a trusted teacher and mentor and above all of that, a loyal and steady friend. She was non-judgmental, always willing to make time for me and to listen. I opened up to her about things I was very private about at work and I felt like she truly saw me for all of me. She supported and nurtured me through break-ups, my brother’s incarceration and multiple major losses and challenges in my life. She was there as I realized I needed to take better care of myself and stood beside me with her gentle and consistent encouragement as I started to figure out how to do that.
When I left GCDD last year to set out on my own, it was not easy or painless, but once again, Dottie showed up for me during this bittersweet and tumultuous transition. On my last day in the office, she went out of her way to celebrate me, my work and my contributions to the organization. She always wanted the people in her life to feel valued, appreciated and honored. And she consistently took any opportunity she could to celebrate us. Dottie supported me in multiple ways during that period. I am not sure how I would have made it through if I hadn’t had her supporting me and reminding me to show up, do my best and to always lead with my heart and my integrity.
A couple years ago an article called What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone by Heather Plett began to make the rounds on Facebook. Before I even read the article, I thought of Dottie. In the article, Heather wrote:
“(Making space) means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgment and control.”
Dottie continued to show up and make space for me and for all the other folks she loved, even as she herself was so ill. She fought hard for so many of us in her friendships, in her work, in her quest to stay here to keep doing what she was born to do. And thank god for that.
I cannot begin to count the number of times since December that I have wanted to pick up the phone to call or drop by for a visit with Dottie. Or the times someone has asked me for advice or resources and I knew that Dottie would know the answer. I think of her often as I struggle and I celebrate and take new risks and dream bigger dreams. I want do my best to grow into and pay forward all I was lucky enough to learn from her. I want to make her proud. It brings me comfort to know that even though she is gone, she will always be here in all of us whose lives she touched and who were lucky enough to learn from her, love her and be loved by her. What an incredible gift she left behind.