The Happy Place

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Jack had never really had friends, and he certainly had never been invited to any parties. He has autism, so communicating with other people has always been an issue. At least it was until his mom found The Exceptional Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama. On his first visit, everything quickly changed. “Another participant walked up to Jack, put his arm around him, and told him he’s his friend for life,” says Foundation Athletic Director Robbie Lee. “Most people might not think anything of that, but it was a big deal for Jack and his mom. Jack is now invited to more birthday parties than he can even attend.”

The Exceptional Foundation is a non-profit organization that exists solely to serve individuals with mental and physical challenges in Birmingham. It started in 1993 with the parents of five kids doing after-school sports.  As more kids joined in, they needed more facility time and space. “Homewood Parks & Recreation was amazing for letting us use its space, but we eventually realized we needed our own gym,” says Carmine Jordan, mother of Andy. “When my husband, Charlie, came home one day saying that’s what the group wanted to do, I knew it was going to be hard. Raising enough money to build a building was very intimidating. But I knew the cause was great.”

After writing letters, applying for grants, and spreading the word throughout Birmingham, it actually happened: The Exceptional Foundation was formed, and with its very own space  at Homewood Parks & Recreation. “It wasn’t easy because it’s not like we were an established non-profit wanting to expand,” explains Carmine. “We wanted to start something brand new, so people didn’t know us. That made it hard. But what we were able to do is show people that the cause was good. We could easily show that as this segment of the population aged out of the school system, there was nothing for them to do.”

Since The Exceptional Foundation opened its doors, it’s been providing a home away from home for Jack and so many others in need of friendships and activities. Like Gregg, who gained confidence in himself when given the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game. Or Erin, who moved to Tennessee with her family but comes back every single year for the Foundation’s prom because it means so much to her—and to her family. And then there’s Scott, an older participant with Down syndrome, who is dropped off every day by his sister. “She is Scott’s caretaker, and it means just as much to her as it does to Scott that he has a place to come,” Robbie says. “When a caretaker knows they have a fun, safe place to bring their loved one, it means the world to them too.”

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Participants at the Foundation take part in a variety of activities during the day, after school, or on the weekend, ranging from guitar lessons to karaoke to exercise classes to team sports. Field trips go practically anywhere: the bowling alley, the McWane Science Center, the nail salon, and even the beach. “We go really wherever they are interested in going,” says Foundation President and CEO Tricia Kirk. “They want to do what the rest of us do, and we are doing everything we can to provide that.”

Tricia knows a thing or two about planning activities for the participants. She’s been in her role at the Foundation since 2001. Back then there were about 18 involved. Now the Foundation serves approximately 200 participants on any given day. For Tricia, it has always been about planning more than activities—it’s about creating opportunities for those she cares for and loves. “This is my role in life,” she says. “I know why I wake up every morning. I know why I was born. It’s nice to be around so much happiness. The Foundation has given me a lot more than I’ve given it.”

That love and care is echoed by most everyone at the Foundation, such as Ginny Bastar, vice president of operations, who has served in some capacity at The Exceptional Foundation since she was a teen. It’s also illustrated by so many volunteers who give their own time every week to help out, such as Jim Ward and Trish Acton, who have both coached basketball and softball at the Foundation for well over a decade. “The Exceptional Foundation has been an answered prayer for a lot of people,” says Carmine. “We consider it the most amazing blessing for Andy. It gives him a full life. He has a whole spectrum of opportunities because of the Foundation. I’ve watched so many new participants come in and see it change them—it gives them a fullness and so many friendships. It’s amazing to see the transformation in people. It’s such a special, happy place.”