Thomas, who works as a custodian for Didlake at Naval Air Station Oceana/Dam Neck in Virginia Beach, recently participated in SourceAmerica’s advocacy training program. For the training, Thomas joined individuals with disabilities from nonprofits across the country for two days of virtual training sessions held in February and April.
The participants talked about how to advocate for themselves and plan for various life situations, such as going to a doctor’s appointment or to the movies, and practiced sharing their stories with others.
“I enjoyed when we did the group Zoom; we talked about different things like what kinds of questions would you ask the doctor. We all had different answers. What are the side effects of the medicine that you prescribed? It was kind of cool to come up with ideas and learn from different people’s thought processes, and to try to be more vocal,” said Thomas.
He continued, “I learned to speak up for myself. For someone like me who struggles with being social, it was good to get used to talking more and asking questions. I am learning how to speak and not be afraid to let people in, and breaking out of my shell. We practiced telling our story of who we are, what we are doing now and how we have persevered from our struggles.”
Thomas was diagnosed with a learning disability at an early age, but he was well into adulthood before he learned he has autism. He noted he struggled with mental health, depression and anxiety over the years and sometimes got into fights at school because he didn’t know how to express himself. At one point, he distanced himself from his parents and siblings. Several years ago, he began talking to a therapist, got the supports he needed and turned his life around.
“My mom is my best friend. Without her I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at now or speaking the way I speak. Growing up, she would work with me at home with spelling and writing. She helped me get approved for disability; it took a couple of years. Once I got that, everything changed. It’s been a long journey from when I was a kid to where I am now. I’m blessed to be where I’m at now.”
Thomas Excels in Supportive Work Environment
Thomas began his job at Dam Neck in 2019. He works four hours each weekday morning, performing various custodial duties such as mopping, dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, taking out trash and cleaning six bathrooms.
“It was hard to get a job because every job wanted me to be fast. I would do the job but maybe not how they wanted me to do it, or I couldn’t keep up. My job with Didlake is the first job where I can really do my job and not worry about messing up.”
For Thomas, the supportive work environment at Didlake is an excellent fit.
“I don’t feel like I’m an outcast. I like being around other people with different kinds of disabilities. I talk to my job coach whenever I feel like I’m stressed and she talks it out with me. I also have a really good team lead who asks if I’m okay, if I’m good. My job is easy but I have to work for it. I know what I have to do so I don’t mind going to work and getting it done. I have a routine and I stick to it; that makes the day go faster,” he said.
Thomas Returns to Childhood Sport
After work, Thomas swims for a club team three days a week. He first joined a swim team when he was 10 years old and swam until he aged out at 19. He picked up the sport again in 2019 and won the Gold in two events – 50 free and 25 fly – at the Virginia Special Olympics Games that year. After a pandemic pause, Thomas joined a local adult master’s league, TIDE Swimming, last fall.
Thomas is looking forward to returning to competition. He will swim his first meet in several years this month. He plans to compete in his two strongest strokes – freestyle (50M and 100M) and butterfly (50M). When he’s not in the pool himself, Thomas can often be found watching swim meets on YouTube. He enjoys watching the pros; in particular, Caeleb Dressel and Katie Ledecky.
He spends his Saturdays practicing softball, primarily pitching, with Special Olympics. He also enjoys watching TV, playing video games, visiting family, and calculating steps and swim miles on his Fitbit watch.