Robert Flynn has turned a life that might not have been lived into a rich experience that has benefited others.
Earlier this month, the 63-year-old Phoenix man retired after a 25-year career with St. Vincent de Paul. Unwilling to be sedentary, Flynn now is entering the Day Training for Adults program at Gompers to keep his skills sharp and to enrich his social experience.
“He actually knows quite a few people over at Gompers who transition between the DTA program and Employment Services, so he’ll be comfortable starting there,” Flynn’s sister Jackie Doerr noted.
When Flynn was born with Down syndrome in 1952, Doerr said the doctors advised her mother “just to tell my dad that Robert didn’t make it and that they would ‘take care of it'” — meaning that he would be institutionalized.
“It’s kind of the way they did things back then,” Doerr said, shaking her head. “We’ve come a long way. People with Down syndrome were so rare then, and not valued.”
When he was growing up, public schools did not welcome the boy with an IQ of 52. “He had to go to all kinds of different places,” his sister remembered. His parents persevered and, through their efforts, Flynn attended a number of educational and training programs around the Valley over the years.
“Think about how difficult it is to get a job when nobody can come back to high-school teachers and counselors for references,” Doerr pointed out. “That’s how it was for so many people like Robert back then.”
At age 22, Flynn got a job at Goodwill. His dad showed him how to get on the city bus, get to work and return home. Doing only the most menial tasks at Goodwill, he eventually decided he wanted to try something new. “So, when Gompers came in with their work program and worked with Robert to get the job at St. Vincent, he started doing some different things,” Doerr said.
At St. Vincent de Paul, he started out with sorting hangers and clothing donations, and then he “kind of eased into doing the laundry, which he really likes,” his sister said.
“The people I work with are my favorite thing about working,” Flynn added. “I really like Lee.”
Processing Center Supervisor Lee Harvey, who oversaw Flynn’s activities, said the feeling is mutual. “Robert did a lot of work for us,” he said. “He was in charge of making sure the tablecloths were washed and on the tables every day so that our clients in the dining room were comfortable when they ate. He also worked with the people in the warehouse to wash sneakers and tennis shoes, which we split up between selling at our thrift store and donating to another organization. He did a lot of different jobs around here.
“I always enjoyed working with Robert,” Harvey continued. “He had his little moments like anyone else, but he was really happy-go-lucky and everyone misses him already. In fact, I’ve been looking over at our laundry area every morning when I come in, half-hoping maybe he’d forgotten about retiring and would just show up again.”
“He really likes to help, to be needed, to feel like he’s doing his part,” Doerr noted. “He’s got a big heart.”
Doerr said she has learned a lot from her younger brother, who for the past 12 years has lived independently with longtime friend Troy Tihey.
“He has two other siblings — another older sister and a younger brother — and we all kind of react to Robert in different ways, but I think we all admire what he’s done with his life,” she said. “I really credit growing up with Robert in helping me with my teaching career; he showed me that he could do as much as everyone else if he had the appropriate amount of time and things broken down into small steps.
“In my 41 years as an educator, 13 of which were teaching, I believe I was the teacher that I was because I knew I could reach any of my kids if I could just make the steps smaller.”
Upon joining one of the transitional rooms in Gompers’ DTA program, Director of Programs and Services Scott Muller noted Flynn will have the best of both worlds: two days in his program room with friends, volunteering and staying sharp with his vocational and social skills; and three days at Gompers’ nearby Employment Services center in Glendale, where he will have the opportunity to learn some new job skills, continue working in a part-time capacity and keep earning a paycheck.
“This is a man who has been an active and productive part of society for a long time, and those habits don’t just go away,” Muller said. “We believe Robert will benefit from DTA and will continue to learn and grow at Employment Services, just as he has done throughout his life.”
Flynn said he is looking forward to splitting his days between Gompers’ DTA program and its Employment Services center.
“It will give me something to do during the day,” he said, smiling. “I like being around people and doing things.”