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Making strides: Chris Johnson recognized for self-advocacy on road to independence

Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette

Chris Johnson of Cedar Rapids is photographed in the kitchen at Meth-Wick Manor in Cedar Rapids. Johnson, who has autism, has washed dishes at the senior living facility’s dining room for two years, which has been a huge step in his quest for greater independence and self-reliance. In September, he received the 2018 Bill Sackter Self-determination/Self-Advocate of the Year award from the Arc of East Central Iowa.
Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette Chris Johnson of Cedar Rapids is photographed in the kitchen at Meth-Wick Manor in Cedar Rapids. Johnson, who has autism, has washed dishes at the senior living facility’s dining room for two years, which has been a huge step in his quest for greater independence and self-reliance. In September, he received the 2018 Bill Sackter Self-determination/Self-Advocate of the Year award from the Arc of East Central Iowa.

CEDAR RAPIDS — Every morning, Chris Johnson, 24, greets his 2,089 Facebook friends with a huge smile and a cheery glimpse into his day, his life and the accomplishments of which he’s most proud.

That’s a huge leap forward for someone whose struggles with autism, Tourette’s and anxiety made his school years difficult.

“It was a tough time,” said his mother, Traci Rezabek of Cedar Rapids. “He had a hard time making new friends.”

Even in kindergarten, he had to learn to squelch the urge to touch his classmates’ ears. In middle school, his Tourette’s escalated with facial and shoulder tics, which are managed with medication. By high school, he was having a hard time making decisions.

“His whole life, he has had to navigate this bizarre path of ‘How do I not do those things that I like to do,’ ” Rezabek said, sitting across the dining room table from him in his group home on the southwest side of town.

“We would try to teach a different path, and he never got mad. When he was a baby, he was tantrums, but that was mostly due to lights and things that we didn’t understand. You kept telling us, ‘It’s buzzing, it’s buzzing,’ ” she said to him.

“He does have a tad bit of a processing issue. It takes him a minute to get the words in. And then I find out sometimes if I just say it to him in a different way, it makes sense to him.”

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“I liked to smell people’s faces,” he said with a laugh. “But that’s how we grow and we learn.”

He has grown and learned by leaps and bounds, taking charge of his life and his independence. He has been riding a city bus since high school — his mom admitted she followed it in her car. He now rides a city bus to his job washing dishes at Meth-Wick and to shop for groceries, putting money on a gift card to make checkout a breeze.

He’s also been living in a group home since May 16, 2015; volunteering with Coldwell Banker Hedges Realty; and going to churches of his own choosing. One of his great delights has been traveling across the country with Camp Courageous groups, most recently to Sacramento, Calif., but also to Phoenix, Charleston, N.C., and New Orleans.

Moving to a group home was his idea. His mother and his father, Mark Johnson of Cedar Rapids, had divorced, and Chris had been alternating between their homes. By age 21, he was “so tired of it. I’m just like, ‘I’m ready to be done going to Mom’s and Dad’s, Mom’s and Dad’s,’ ” he said with a laugh.

”Yeah, we knew that,” his mom said, adding that she cried when he left.

All of these strides, his initiative and his kindness toward others factored into winning the 2018 Bill Sackter Self-determination/Self-Advocate of the Year award Sept. 25 from the Arc of East Central Iowa. The organization “empowers people with intellectual and related disabilities to engage in lifelong opportunities to live, learn, work and play with dignity, freedom and full inclusion in their communities.”

In his acceptance speech, he said: “I’m so thankful for all the people who helped me become independent in my job and in my home life — especially Project Search.”

His mom credits Project Search with helping him gain confidence, as well as job skills. It’s a joint program through the Arc in partnership with UnityPoint-St. Luke’s Hospital and Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services.

Johnson had graduated from Linn-Mar High School in Marion in 2013, then spent two more years with the school’s Success Center, a transitional program building life skills for young people ages 18 to 21. Around age 22, he was accepted into Project Search, where he had nine-week internships in three UnityPoint-St. Luke’s divisions: the sterile processing department, the Center for Women & Children’s Health, and the Witwer Children’s Therapy Center, mostly cleaning and restocking such items as instruments, blankets, gloves and toys.

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He also learned interviewing skills and attire, which led to his dishwashing job at Meth-Wick two years ago. He works there three days a week, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“It’s very hard work,” he said. “I get so hot and drink a lot of water.”

While he didn’t need a side-by-side job coach, he did need help mastering the dishwasher in the beginning. He said he was nervous at first, but soon was being praised for his ability to work on his own. He never dreamed in high school that he would be doing all this.

“I had a hard time making decisions in high school, but now, here I am, making all these decisions on my own.”

This once-shy guy now “has a lot more confidence, and he seems a lot more sure of himself,” Rezabek said. ”When he was little, he didn’t know how to navigate people.”

“But now here I am,” he said.

“He’s had to navigate a really rough road, and he’s done it with such grace,” Rezabek said, adding with pride, “You amaze me all the time.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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