Guest Blogger: Niko DelValle, Intern & Advisory Team Member

Author: Guest

Niko DelValle has been a member of the Tower Advisory Team since its first iteration in 2019.  This year he joined the Tower Foundation as an intern to help support Advisory Team activities. Here Niko talks about his experience as an Advisory Team member.

Back in 2019, I was at a bit of a crossroads of my life. Just a couple of years earlier, I had gone off to college and found myself unprepared for the rigors of higher education. I ended up closing myself off from the world as an act of mental self-defense, leading to me dropping out not due to the filing of any paperwork or the making of any calls but just from sheer absence. It was too stressful to confront my responsibilities and so I just shut down until it had blown over. It was around that time when my needs started to become more recognized and addressed, and that I got a life coach. He helped me find my direction and key into my interests, and ultimately helped guide me to that intersection of life. A point where I had to decide what my future was.

Truthfully, that wasn’t the real choice I was making. I already knew even back then what I wanted for my future, stability. A job I could be comfortable with, relationships I could depend on, activities to help me improve my physical health, and passions that could continue driving me forward. I can’t say that even today I’ve found all of those things or that the future isn’t still dotted with uncertainty, and back then I certainly wasn’t aware of many of the paths I could follow to attain those things… but I did know at least one thing: I felt strongly about the experiences and struggles I had growing up, and I wanted so much to make it so that other people would get the help I needed earlier. 

With that in mind, it should be no wonder that I was overjoyed at the idea my Life Coach presented to me so nonchalantly: to meet with other young people in similar positions to mine, and to have my voice heard in a process that could make a difference. I still remember how amazed I was by the concept even when I arrived at that first meeting. What difference was I going to make? Some random autistic kid pretending to be an adult, wearing some irrelevant tee-shirt I got as a gift and the pair of headphones I kept around to protect me from the world? 

Being honest, the first meeting didn’t really allay my skepticism. I was so happy to be in a room surrounded by my peers, and with all of my economic struggles throughout my life I can never fail to appreciate a day with free food and snacks. The conversation was great and I felt very acknowledged. I was overjoyed to meet so many new and wonderful people. But there was something that kept bugging me on the inside about it all. Certainly, a foolish thing for me to expect even subconsciously, but at that point I didn’t feel powerful. I wondered as to whether or not we’d really been summoned here to have our voices heard or to pose for a photo op.

With the start of the working meetings though, that definitely changed. I still remember the incredible time I had hearing the voices of other people both like me and so unlike me, each with their own unique story of how their disability had affected them and their own take on what we should do about it. I loved sitting in the conference room and having those conversations, and I loved writing down everyone’s points and ideas onto the whiteboard to present out to the larger group. That was the first time I felt that power I’d been looking for and had felt so long denied as a person with a disability. 

Due to some bad experiences as a child, I’ve been taught to quiet myself and expect others to advocate for me. But at the Advisory Team, I found an opportunity to speak and be heard for what I wanted to say without being pinned down. Here I found the first opportunity I’d had since I was a kid to be listened to, to express my truth without being compelled to silence or patronized. 

I’ve often had trouble expressing my emotions due to my experiences so maybe the people who know me don’t truly understand how meaningful that was to me, but it really got me to reexamine the way I live my life. To this day I carry the lessons that liberating emotion taught me. I still get trapped in my own head sometimes, but I’ve learned to live so much more honestly and openly. I’ve learned to live as myself. And the Advisory Team was a not insignificant part of that.

Moving on though, I did sort of see the cracks with that first team as we went on though. I loved talking with my peers but the more the Tower Staff talked about the grander process, the more I realized how on rails the process was. The organizations we were to make decisions had been chosen for us, and when our final dinner came and it was revealed that all of the applications had been approved – regardless of the team’s opinions on them – I couldn’t help but wonder if our feedback had mattered. I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d really made a difference, or if we were just an unnecessary cog in a process beyond us. 

Luckily, something I’ve realized the more I work with Tower is that my amazing coworkers don’t approach any of this process with the arrogance I so often expect to see when I interact with decision-makers for the disabled. Every word of criticism I would ever make would be taken to heart and responded to in such a genuine way, and they’d always be willing to reckon with the ways the process could be improved. So often in my life I’ve felt scared to say what I’m truly thinking. Scared that I’ll offend someone or hurt their feelings. Working with Tower has made me brave not just because of the empowerment I get from it, but because I see that the people I work with get that critique comes from a place of passion. When I talk to my coworkers, I never feel like I have to be scared to speak my mind, and I know that the larger organization and I can always grow and become better as a result. 

This is all to say, I expressed my concerns to Tower, and step by step they’ve responded in ways that amaze me and showed me that I wasn’t ever wrong to feel like my voice mattered in this process. Obviously, there were a lot of things between then and now, but today in 2022 it’s incredible to me how far things have come. This Advisory Team has learned so many lessons from the past. The process I once felt we had been left out of is now an integral part of our work, as we’ve gone step by step through the path to developing our own RFP. The words I once worried were meaningless were shown to me to have impacted the organizations we commented on in not insignificant ways. I even became an employee of Tower myself, and isn’t that an incredible twist of fate?

There’s still so much more work to do and so many more ways we can improve as a team. But as part of the Advisory Team and a Tower Employee, I feel confident looking forward to the upcoming interviews we have with the various organizations we’ll be assessing for grants. More than that, I feel proud of what I’ve accomplished looking back. No matter how it all turns out, I’ll carry the lessons I’ve learned and experiences I’ve had forward forever. And that’s to say nothing of the respect I’ll always have for all of the people involved.  I’m happy to be an Advisory Team member and happy to be a Tower Employee. I see only great things ahead.