By Betsy Barrow
For several months in a row last year, I received emails inviting me to attend an Asian Advisory Committee Meeting for the Provo School District. I figured that I was probably receiving these emails because my youngest son was born in China and joined our family when he was 4 years old. I hoped that this advisory committee was made up of Asian parents and I was very interested in learning from them. However, as an adoptive Caucasian mother, I wasn’t sure whether I would feel like an outsider in these meetings. With each email invitation, I considered attending but could never gather the courage to show up.
Last March, shortly after many events were canceled or moved online because of the pandemic, I received another email invite, this time for a meeting over Zoom. With less distraction in my life and many questions about how recent events might affect my son, I decided to attend. I was hesitant as I pressed the link to join and waited for the host to let me in. When it was my turn to introduce myself, I explained my insecurities about attending the meeting. Immediately one of the parents exclaimed, “We have needed you!” Although I didn’t know how I might contribute, her warmth and the sentiment that I was needed gave me immediate assurance that I belonged in this group. I have reflected on how this experience made me feel many times since. This message of belonging is one that many in our community long to hear.
Erik Carter, professor of special education at Vanderbilt University, interviewed more than 500 adolescents with an intellectual disability and their parents about what helps them to flourish in their communities. These Individuals expressed needs to be present, invited, welcomed, known, accepted, supported, cared for, befriended, needed, and loved. Using the visual of a wheel, Carter illustrates how the fulfillment of these needs progressively fosters a greater sense of belonging. Although Carter’s research was specific to adolescents with disabilities, he acknowledges that these needs are universal.
(Carter, Erik. “Fostering Belonging: Inclusion, Friendship, and People with Disabilities.” Marjorie Pay Hinkley Lecture, 2018, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.)
Most of us can remember a time when we have experienced the awkward loneliness that occurs outside of belonging—times when we have felt seen but not known, present but not accepted, invited but not needed, and welcomed but not loved. As I consider my own experiences in the context of Carter’s model, I recognize that my efforts to invite and welcome, although important and sincere, often stop short of helping others to feel a true sense of belonging. Carter’s model helped me to understand why the words, “we have needed you” felt so reassuring.
I have been grateful for times in my life when neighbors, friends, and even acquaintances have found the courage to reach beyond invitations and welcomes to graciously pull me in. A short time after my late husband died by suicide in 2012, I was invited to a public event. I dreaded going but I also knew that I couldn’t stay home forever. As I entered the room filled with members of my community, a weight of overwhelming loneliness made each step feel awkward. I wished for invisibility as I walked to my seat, nervous about making people uncomfortable with my presence, knowing many people might not know what to say to me.
After sitting down, a woman on the row in front of me, whom I had met previously but did not know well, turned around and smiled. I smiled back unsure if she knew about my husband’s death. She extended her hand toward me, prompting me to reach my hand toward hers. When our hands met, she squeezed tight and mouthed the words, “I love you.” This unconditional acceptance conveyed to me that I was not alone in my grief and that I belonged to a community of people who loved me—a message that has been stored in my memory as one of the most profound acts of kindness I have ever received.
The visual created by Carter’s wheel of belonging has become a guidepost for me when reflecting on my own efforts to reach out. Inviting and welcoming comes easily to me but moving beyond these more superficial gestures requires courage and an awareness of others’ proximity. At times, our lives can feel too full or our social obligations too demanding to comprehensively address each need that Carter suggests. However, my experience with the advisory committee and my memory of being reached out to in a lonely crowd remind me that our most successful efforts to help others belong (especially those who feel on the outside of our social circles) will require us to reach beyond what is comfortable to assure others of their unconditional importance in our lives and in our community.
Betsy moved to Provo with her children six years ago. She and her husband, Jeff, were introduced to each other by one of their Edgemont neighbors; after discovering their shared love of frozen yogurt, sushi, and BYU football, they decided this was a match made in heaven. They have a blended family of 8 young-adult children who often keep them up past their bedtime. Betsy loves cooking with her family, traveling, and gardening. She will be pursuing a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy at BYU next fall.