Ashley Baker: Leading the Way
Albany, Georgia (Senate District 12)
Ashley Baker’s apartment is the stuff of a single young woman's dreams. She’s decorated it herself, with sparkly silver curtains in the living room complementing sparkly green curtains in the bedroom—the latter of which match her seafoam green bedspread. Each room has a focal point. In the living room, it’s the collection of photos of family and friends on the bookshelf. In the bedroom, it’s a set of delicate perfume bottles she’s spent years collecting. And in her kitchenette, it’s an abstract painting she made herself. It’s stylish, it’s personal, and it feels like home to this 30-year-old who’s always on the go.
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Ashley has slated today’s conversation in just before she goes out with friends to see a movie. Later this month, she’s interviewing with a job counselor with the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency to determine what kind of job might be a good fit.
It’s all coming together for Ashley Baker, whose intellectual disability does not seem to get too much in the way of life.
It was almost not like this.
Her aunt, Janice Route-Blaylock, tells that part of the story.
“Ashley and her mother were very close.” Ashley grew up here in Albany, Georgia, with her mother, father, and two older brothers. Her mother had prayed for a baby girl, and Ashley was the answer to those prayers.
“Her mother was a very independent woman, and she raised Ashley to be independent,” says Janice. Ashley’s mother was protective of her daughter, but “she didn’t treat Ashley any differently from any other child,” making sure she knew how to cook, clean, and take fairly good care of herself from a young age. She sent Ashley to the local public school where she attended mainstream classes, football games, and senior prom with friends, dressed to the nines.
But while Ashley was busy with those senior-year activities, her mother, beset by medical challenges, moved to a nursing home. When Ashley turned twenty, her mother died of ovarian cancer—and her aunt, Janice, took over her care. “I promised my sister I would take care of Ashley,” says Janice, “but, honestly? I didn’t know how I was going to do it.”
Here she was, a 59-year-old working woman with challenges of her own—but she loved her niece and was determined to follow through both on her promise and on her sister’s goal of raising Ashley to have the best life possible.
The trouble was, that wasn’t happening. Janice could see that. After her high school graduation, Ashley spent most days just sitting around the house watching television for hours. She was unchallenged. She lacked motivation. Ashley, a natural social butterfly, was beginning to turn inward. This is what many people in the field call “the school to couch pipeline.”
That’s where ARC of Southwest Georgia came in. Janice remembers attending the organization’s annual “Shining Stars” gala that year and seeing how they helped people with developmental disabilities lead fulfilling, inclusive lives in the community. That night, she remembers saying to then-executive director Annette Bowling, “I sure wish my niece could be involved in something like this.”
Bowling listened, and Janice says, a prayer was answered. In the ten years since, The Arc’s programs promoting everyday skill-building, socialization, exercise, and integration into the greater community have helped Ashley to “blossom.” She now has a place to go every day to learn, grow, and thrive.
As for her sense of style, that comes from her mother. “Oh, yes,” says Janice. “She taught her from the beginning how to dress herself and coordinate clothing, jewelry and make-up; and she’s a very proud young woman,” says her aunt. “Very independent. Very discerning. She’s quiet, but she’s thoughtful. And when she’s made up her mind about you, she’ll give you that smile.”
Ashley smiles the first time in our conversation when we notice her carefully chosen outfit—a charcoal-gray pinstriped blouse, matching necklace, dark jeans, and shoulder-length styled hair from her carefully curated collection of wigs. She smiles again while showing us her kitchen and talking about her favorite things to cook: her specialty is spaghetti, which her mother taught her to make. And her aunt is right: That smile is electric.
In many ways, this confident young woman is a product of her own talents and character, her family’s care, and the instrumental work of The Arc of Southwest Georgia.
She has spent years now learning skills and growing, helped along by the case manager that her Medicaid waiver enables her to have. And now she has set new goals. “I want to learn how to drive,” she says. And she has her eyes on getting a new job. She’s worked before, in retail, where her fastidious nature served her well. Ashley is one of those people who makes her bed with military neatness each morning upon waking. “I don’t do that,” laughs her aunt.
The two still spend a lot of time together on weekends, going to the hairdresser or the grocery store. “She has her own debit card, and she’ll use that on a shopping trip,” says Janice. “I like to let her know about the things happening around the neighborhood, so we’ll just drive around sometimes, and I’ll point things out.” They bake pumpkin bread and cook Sunday dinner and watch TV together. Ashley likes The Simpsons, but Aunt Janice prefers the news. A lot of the time, they’ll just sit quietly together on Janice’s porch, drinking coffee, listening to the birds, and enjoying the sunshine. “It’s simple, but it’s fulfilling,” says Janice. And then she’ll watch as Ashley heads out the door yet again, to the latest college football game, adult day center activity, or round of bocce ball with her friends.
At this age, her niece’s busy social life these days makes Janice’s head spin a little. But she’s proud.
What goals does she have for her niece? “What goals do I have for her?” She pauses in a way that almost, but doesn’t quite ask, Have you even been listening? “I just want for her to be happy. You know, I kind of let her lead the way. I know Ashley. She’ll rise to the occasion if given the proper motivation. Give her the right guidance, and she’s good to go.”
Writer: Kate Sweeney, Photographer: Jessica Whitley