It was 2004 when I met a woman with a mop of red hair. Little did I know how much of an impact she would have on my life.
My life had been nothing but a nightmare, for most of it. I was a throwaway child growing up with a physical disability. A boy who had been to five elementary schools in five years. Students and some teachers would bully me for things I could not help, and that led to mental disabilities that are still around.
And when you get bullied, you get angry. I was very angry by the age of 14.
Thankfully, I was open enrolled at age 12 in a school district that had wonderful teachers in the disability field. There were some great mainstream teachers and adults, too, including some wonderful pastors, who got me through it, as well as great parents. I finished high school, then finished college with a bachelor's degree.
Finding a job proved difficult, and I ended up working at a group home, where I met the red-haired woman. She had more disabilities than I could ever have imagined. She was developmentally delayed, unable to walk or speak. She was born in the 1960s to two loving parents who decided to raise her at home instead of taking her to a state school -- until they finally could not.
Even though her folks would visit her all the time, her life was so controlled by her disability that she would lash out at the world when things happened that she could not control. The two staffers I worked with did not want to associate much with her, so they bounced her to me.
We hit it off.
She always loved to laugh; her smile was contagious. The gags she loved the most were imitations of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges, the Muppets or the "Home Alone" movies. Pretending not to find something or neurotic dancing would make her excited and happy.
Over the years, we played thousands of card games, made hundreds of trips to the bingo parlor, completed thousands of puzzles and spent thousands of hours watching cartoons.
It's strange, in a sense. I spent more time with her in eight years than anyone else. Almost eight hours a day, five days a week, for eight years and three months.
She meant so much that when her cat could no longer live with her, I convinced my folks to give Shiloh a loving home. (She now spends her time sleeping in my Dad's home office in a specially made cardboard box.)
Sadly, times must end. I was laid off from my job one month ago, after my own disabilities began to create challenges yet again. Over time, the red-haired woman herself had begun to go slowly downhill.
She passed away on Jan. 16.
We see all these angry young men with mental disabilities committing mass shootings. What seems to be missing whenever I hear about these perpetrators is any involvement in humanity.
You never hear about them spending time in the community, volunteering and getting to know people, trying to help those with needs who could fuel their own happiness. They spend their time mired in rage, detached from the world that surrounds them.
And in many other places, I see apathy and the push for self-reliance. I hear Tea Party activists who think all government money spent on the vulnerable is unconstitutional, and that families should be on their own.
I have heard others who state that people like her don't serve a purpose in our society and should be back in institutions. And others who would rather push the responsibility to someone else, stating that all public welfare should be considered charity. And still others who believe that government should live within its means, regardless of the consequences for others.
And yet, we never mention the benefits of a life lived. And that one person can make all the difference in the world.
The woman with the short, red hair lived. And in the eyes of a man considered a throwaway child, whose childhood experiences were scarily similar to the Newtown shooter's, it made all the difference.
William Cory Labovitch is a political activist in South St. Paul.