The ties that bind

Allan Madrid

Lars Johnson does not like volunteering.

Rather than spending hours and hours performing community service work, the Weinberg senior says he devotes his time to eating treats, playing games and sharing stories with a tight-knit group of friends — friends who happen to have mental disabilities.

“I (hang out with them) just for fun,” he said. “I would never call this volunteer work because I’m not giving up anything else to eat dinner with them and I actually enjoy being here.”

Johnson is co-president of Natural Ties, a student organization that allows college students to socialize with Evanston and Chicago-area residents who have mental disabilities.

Members meet the first and third Tuesday of every month on the ground floor of Norris University Center, where they socialize with by eating dinner, making crafts and playing games like bingo and Jeopardy.

“(In Natural Ties), there is no responsibility to follow anything else but pure enjoyment,” said Education junior Erin Fitzgerald, the club’s other co-president. “We have a community where we see each other twice a month to just have fun with each other and socialize.”

Natural Ties was first established at Kansas University in 1988 by a student who developed a friendship with a young adult with mental disabilities. The organization’s headquarters later moved to Evanston, and the group expanded to the national level by forming chapters at several college campuses across the country .

But in 2002, the organization went bankrupt and was forced to close its headquarters indefinitely — disheartening Evanston residents and Northwestern students alike.

Ryan Williams, McCormick ’04, was one of these students. Because he did not want the organization to disappear, he took it upon himself to revitalize the NU chapter and allow it to grow over the years.

“This is one of the only venues where people with disabilities can come and just interact with each other,” Williams said. “It would have been a shame to see all of this go away.”

Now between 25 and 45 Chicago-area residents congregate at Natural Ties gatherings. The organization manages to pay for its expenses by collecting money for a raffle during every meeting, in which one participant wins half the money collected and the other half goes toward Natural Ties expenses.

“We try to do many low-budget activities like printing out bingo cards from the computers and having someone donate baked cookies,” Fitzgerald said.

Many of these locals with disabilities have been in the program for years, while others have joined after hearing about it from friends who already participate.

“Natural Ties has done a lot for me personally,” said Ira Mitchell, 32, an Evanston resident who has been with the program for 13 years. “It has given me great friendships and allowed me to interact with a lot of people from the community.”

Although Natural Ties does not have a problem getting community members to participate, it does have a hard time involving students, Fitzgerald said. Although the organization is currently composed of two students, a former student and an Evanston volunteer, members said they will be working on recruitment in the near future.

“Everyone feels like they’re too busy,” Fitzgerald said. “(Natural Ties) gets you out of the college world for two hours and reminds you that there are so many more important things in life besides classes and busy schedules. I just can’t even begin to express how much joy is generated from this community.”

Reach Allan Madrid at [email protected].