Program Report: Susan McSwain – Reality Ministries

As the years click by faster and faster still not knowing what I want to be when I grow up, I’m more and more awed and a little envious of those who tell stories of life changing moments when their vision crystalized and they knew what they were born to do.

Rotarian Mark Higgins introduced our speaker, Susan McSwain, the Executive Director of Reality Ministries, to an audience thinned a little bit by the truly awful weather we were experiencing and maybe a few who had forgotten to change their clocks over the weekend.

Ms. McSwain described her vision of an inclusive community where everyone, no matter what race, gender, orientation, nationality, religion or level of ability was accepted and nurtured and became the best person they could be.

My first thought was what does that have to do with “reality” at a time when white nationalists are crawling out from under their rocks and beating their chests.  But, maybe that’s the point; we need to share her vision to create a new reality.

Ms. McSwain expressed how wonderful Durham is, relatively speaking, as an inclusive community, but that we’re not all the way there yet.

Then she told the story of her own life-changing moment after she was asked to help at an event at SouthPoint mall for a group of young people with a variety of disabilities. She told of the trepidation she felt approaching this task and the sense of relief and acceptance that she felt when she joined the group. This was when she knew that bringing such warm and accepting people who were struggling at the margins of society into full participation in the life of the community was what she wanted to do.

So how do they do it? There is a lot of detail on the organization’s website at and Ms. McSwain shared some of it, but the website is well done and is worth taking a close look at.  She mentioned that they have a very high ratio of volunteers to participants and although there are volunteers that provide specific service or expertise, the main role of volunteers is simply to be “a friend to our friends with disabilities.”

I suspect that many of the volunteers find that virtue is indeed its own reward and enjoy immensely the friendships that they make from these folks not infected by cynicism, a sense of superiority or hidden motives.

Ms. McSwain talked about one other activity they do annually which has grown out of one venue after another and now takes place at the biggest daddy of them all in Durham, DPAC, which they fill up. There are some wonderful pictures of these events on the website. The next one is coming up on April 23 at DPAC. Tickets are required but free.

Two observations: Ms. McSwain is a natural story teller. Sitting were I was to take pictures I couldn’t see how the rest of the group was reacting, but I was told later that she had her audience’s full attention and maybe elicited a tear or two. Her best story she almost forgot to tell. It was about coaching one of the participants in the talent show who had been very fearful. When, the woman, Cynthia was her name, got on stage it looked like she might freeze but slowly found her voice. She was singing Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” She said that by the time Cynthia reached the line that defines the song “No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity” the young woman was belting it out.  As Ms. McClain told it I could almost here Whitney’s voice and the crowd at DPAC cheering wildly…and I was tearing up myself and glad to be upfront where nobody could see.

Searching to make sure I got the song title right I came across a video of Whitney’s performance of the song. For those of you too young to remember her I’ve embedded it below. It’s interesting because it too tells a story of the struggle of coming in from the margins.

Second observation: If the members of our club that represent non-profits that provide services in our community started their own club, it would be bigger than many of the clubs in our district. But Rotary is our name and service is our game. It’s great that we can welcome them into the club and give them the support and attention they deserve.

Submitted by Jay Zenner

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