By Cara Spilsbury
Ten years ago, when John Anton of Haverhill was flipping burgers at a fast food joint and reining in shopping carts at a local grocery store, few would have thought that he'd be heading to Washington to meet with members of Congress to discuss the rights of people with developmental disabilities.
One person who always knew was Anton.
This week, Anton was in D.C. to be honored as the National Down Syndrome Society's 2010 Advocate of the Year.
"John has always dreamed really big, and it's been a challenge for the rest of us to keep up with him," said Joe Bockman, his service coordinator at the Department of Development Services.
However, the more he achieved, the more people started to believe in him.
"It's really not a surprise at this point that he's getting this incredible award," Bockman said.
Bockman remembered trying to help Anton keep his job in food service, but Anton kept telling him he wanted to wear a tie, carry a briefcase and work in an office. Anton was determined to get a job at the Statehouse.
"He didn't want anything other than what he was dreaming of," Bockman said. "John taught us to believe in our dreams."
Today, Anton works at the Massachusetts Statehouse as an intern to state Rep. Tom Sannicandro, where he works to provide guidance on legislative and policy issues.
Anton has been a constant voice at the Statehouse on behalf of people with developmental disabilities, especially as he worked on legislation to change the name of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation to reflect a more updated and sensitive attitude for the lead agency that serves him and others with disabilities. On July 1, 2009, the name change to the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, was approved and adopted by the state legislature.
Other highlights of Anton's resume include:
Serving as chairman for Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong for four years, as a spokesperson for more than 2,000 self-advocates across the state.
Developing a legislative advocacy training series for self-advocates across Massachusetts through his fellowship, Gospen Fellow, sponsored by the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council.
Attending and testifying at more than 36 legislative meetings or hearings including providing testimony for the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress priority bill, H.1780, that will require national background cheks for service providers of the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services to ensure the safety of adults with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities.
Anton knew he had been nominated for the award by Maureen Gallagher, executive director of the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress. But he was shocked when Gallagher told him he had been named the winner.
"She called me from Florida on her vacation," Anton said. "She told me I got it, and I was jumping up and down for joy."
While in the nation's capitol, Anton and his guests — his mother, Janice Anton, sister Ruth Anton, his support adviser Fran Hogan and Bockman — will have little time for sight-seeing.
Anton will receive his award at the Buddy Walk on Washington reception on Feb. 24. The next day, he has plans to meet with Haverhill's Congresswoman Niki Tsongas and both of Massachusetts' U.S. senators, John Kerry and Scott Brown. He'll advocate on behalf of others with developmental disabilities, particularly in regards to the 2011 budget.
Those who work with and love Anton are very proud.
"John's work ethic is what everyone talks about," said Hogan. "He says, 'This is my life. This is why I get up in the morning.' He wants to keep helping other people. How dedicated he is, it's not something you can buy. It's something inside."
"I keep saying he has a steel backbone," joked his mother.
The last time Anton visited Washington, D.C., he took a picture of himself in front of the White House. Anton glued it into his scrapbook and underneath it wrote, "My future home."
"Dreaming big is a great thing to do," Anton said.