By Gina Coufal

Albert Einstein once said “Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.” I believe nature delivers us many lessons and, in my life, I found there was none more powerful than the story of the Aspen Tree. With their breathtaking beauty and many amazing characteristics, I think they tell an essential story for us and our communities. We have much to learn from them. As I learned more about the Aspen, I found myself drawing many comparisons between the Aspen tree and individuals with developmental disabilities. I invite you to ponder the same, and join me in celebrating its symbolism.

This is the story of the magnificent ASPEN TREE….

Since times of old, the Aspen was seen as a tree of HEROES. “Aspis” is the Greek name for Aspen. It means “shield.” The Greeks thought it had magical powers and protective qualities. Its leaves were used in the crowns of heroes. Ironically, Aspens are weak in spots and prone to disease. Their trunks are soft and bend with the wind. Their bark is not strong enough to be used in building. However, due to its light weight it made a shield easy to carry and its silent strength protected the bearer from harm. While possibly the weakest tree in the forest, The Aspen is the last to burn and the first to repopulate and replenish. They are virtually immortal.

I believe that those we support are HEROES. Though sometimes perceived as weak, they must continually adapt. Their strength and resilience is simply undeniable.

Aspens also have a life giving PURPOSE. They provide an important source of food and shelter for over 500 species. The bark has a medicinal value, producing an aspirin-like ingredient used in soothing ointments. Some remedies use extracts from of the Aspen to treat fear and apprehension.

Working with people with developmental disabilities is often seen as a “service” or “clinical support.”  Something WE do to “help” THEM. We approach disability as a medical condition we must treat and cure. The truth is, I believe I am the one with the disability and my son is MY medicine. He provides me with the opportunity to learn, to grow, to be challenged, to appreciate things differently – and to live with a purpose. He is a constant example of healing and hope. When I am with the FRIENDS, I feel happy and inspired. Others who meet them remark that that they have a way of bringing out the best in us.

Aspens are a significant symbol for COMMUNITY. You never see just one. They stand in cohesive groves. Their sophisticated root system allows them to be connected to and support each other. Did you know that after a forest fire, it’s the Aspen that shoots up new sprouts first and colonizes the burned area, allowing the mighty conifer to grow and one day, overshadow them. People with developmental disabilities stand with their own unique qualities and strengths, although often overshadowed. Ironically it’s through THEIR need and existence, that we have opportunity to give, and grow, and become mighty.

Aspens are not the only tree in the forest. In fact Aspens are healthiest when their own groves (or communities) are DIVERSE. If all the trees are the same, they are more vulnerable to disease and natural disasters.      If a “community” includes people who differ, the Aspen would symbolize the strength of those uniting for a particular cause or purpose. Just like the Aspen, those with developmental disabilities enrich our community and give us purpose. Together we are stronger.

Finding strength in each other is never more important than when facing life’s challenges. The Aspen tree itself had challenges and was not always revered. In fact there was a time when Scottish Highlands folklore considered Aspen trees taboo. Christian mythology describes the quaking of its leaves as “a trembling in shame” for having supplied the wood from which the crucifix was made. Its beautiful qualities solicited feelings of fear and loathing. Like the Aspen, those we support also endure ridicule and harsh judgment. Still, they persevere and overcome. Their positive resolve remains, and is evident through unconditional acceptance and love. After all, like the Aspen, they grow best in the warm light of the sun, not in the shade.

Those of us lucky enough to live in Colorado can appreciate the beauty of the Aspen tree. Their brilliantly colored leaves are also unique in that their shape allows them to twist from side to side, remaining stable in a strong wind. The most amazing quality is the way they flutter. In their fluttering they make a calm whispering sound, almost difficult to hear. Some say it’s their spirit, or a voice from beyond. Those with developmental disabilities may not always have a voice, figuratively or literally, but they most certainly have something profound to say. And like with the Aspen, if you listen carefully and patiently, the answers to life’s mysteries will be revealed, and you will be changed forever.