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Great Scot!

Nothing reduces me to a tittering fool like a Scottish brogue.

Really, if those Nigerian bank scammers could do a decent Sean Connery imitation, they’d have my life savings in a minute. So it’s a good thing that Peter Sabine had no intentions of filching my wallet, because I would’ve handed it right over at “heh–loh.”

The Scottish equal awareness consultant visited Savannah last week at the invitation of Chatham–Savannah Citizens Advocacy director Tom Kohler, who was charmed into submission by Sabine at the Inclusion Scotland Conference in Edinburgh last year. Here in Savannah, Citizens Advocacy pairs up folks in need with those who want to help them.

Similarly, in his native land, Sabine works with ELCAP, an organization that supports people with mental and physical challenges much in the same way that Citizens Advocacy does: By listening.

I could have listened to Sabine talk all day about the intricacies Scotland’s tax codes, but it turns out his topic fascinated as much as his accent: He’s a passionate and patient educator on what’s called “person–centered planning,” an approach to social care adopted ten years ago in the United Kingdom to empower those living with disabilities. The 35 year–old advises government entities and charities as well as works with individuals to identify their strengths and become more independent. He also happens to have Down’s Syndrome.

Between Kohler’s exceptional beard and Sabine’s bewitching brogue, the two made quite the devastating pair as the former squired the latter around town for a definitive tour of Savannah’s community hotspots. Stops included watering holes the Sentient Bean and Molly MacPherson’s as well as the Creative Coast offices, where Sabine lent a memorable cameo to the Savannah Urban Arts Festival’s “Changing Perspectives” cultural panel. Beth Mount’s exhibit of Story Quilts at the Jepson was also on the agenda. (Mount, a person–centered planning activist, will speak at the Creative Coast’s TEDx event May 18.)

I met up with this dashing duo at Johnny Harris for some famous fried chicken and sweet tea, along with Citizen Advocacy volunteer Chloe Stuber, advocate Ben Oxnard and Oxnard’s protégé, Jeremy Gall. Around a table under the star–spangled ceiling, Sabine held court, sharing the details of his own life–planning process over a decade ago.

While many in need of assistance continue to be relegated to the edges of Western society, the UK’s shift from a mode based on services and institutions to one that lets people choose the options available to them allowed Sabine to stride far past the societal expectations placed on him.

“Because of this approach, I don’t just go to a center every day,” he trilled in that absolutely fantastic accent. “I contribute, I live independently in my own flat, I have paid work. It feels brilliant to be valued and be doing something for other people.”

What does a person–centered plan look like? Sabine and his allies updated his after reaching many of the goals of the first version, and together they created a video of him leading viewers through a rainbow–hued, multidimensional map depicting his specific goals, actions and assets. I got a dose of his “legendary sense of humor” when I teasingly warned him that I was taking notes and that he might not want to say anything too scandalous, and he volleyed back, “You mean about you?”

His future plan includes growing his international consulting business, working with people with autism and finding a nice girlfriend. Though committed to the idea that no one should be defined by his or her disability, he acknowledges that his accomplishments are extraordinary.

“I don’t give false hope to people, but I think I give a point of what can be achieved,” he mulled. “Everyone’s different, and that’s the point, isn’t it?”

As I mooned over Sabine’s Highland cadence, Kohler sat by, taking in his wisdom and descriptions. Many of them reflect the work he’s done with Citizens Advocacy for the last 34 years: Providing the opportunity for those who “fall through the cracks” to voice their desires to someone who can help. “Essentially, the point is to help people who have been left off the page be in the story.”

He’s amazed at the level that the Scottish government has adopted people–centered planning as policy and hopes Sabine’s visit will challenge American assumptions about labels.

“We need to wrap our minds around the idea that everyone can be bigger than we think they can,” he said, nodding towards Sabine. “Wouldn’t we want to be a country that creates these kinds of citizens?”

Such citizenry can only happen by including the people society marks off as “special needs” and then relegates into day centers and institutions, far away from any place their gifts and ideas can be heard. A genuine community listens to how they envision their own futures, which can only be accomplished through relationships. And maybe over some food.

Kohler says the aim is to keep the “social” back in social change. True to that, Citizen Advocacy is hosting its 34th annual meeting and the Savannah’s Biggest and Best Covered Dish Dinner Thursday, May 10 at Savannah Station. The event is basically an exercise in tossing everything you know about hosting a party out the window, as there are no reservations, no RSVPs and not a whole lot of planning: Just show up with a dish and find a seat.

“We never know how many people will come, but it always works out,” chuckles Kohler when I fret over whether there will be enough napkins. He’s done this enough times that I have to trust him. He’ll also be aided by a competent recent addition to the non–profit, Connect’s own Happenings editor, Robin Wright Gunn, who came on board last October to help coordinate advocate/protégé matches.

Last year was our family’s first time at this loving smorgasbord, and we were so inspired by the comradery and music and laughter and the banquettes overflowing with casseroles and deviled eggs and salads and desserts that we volunteered to host a table this time around. (I put the kids are in charge of the centerpiece. So far, they’ve come up with some hideous chicken–feathers–meets–Harry Potter theme, but there’s still time.)

Regrettably, Peter Sabine will have gone back to the land of lochs by then, though his voice—and yes, even what he said—will echo in my mind for a long time to come.

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