Auburn locals Samantha Bradshaw, Penny Foster, Ouida Lawrence, and Ashley Benson seemed to meet each other serendipitously through acquaintances. The four women became fast friends due in large part to one strong common thread. As Samantha said, “When you have a child with Down syndrome, you have an immediate connection.”
The women began meeting together regularly as an informal support group where they would discuss their children and what was going on in their lives. As their children were currently in elementary school, Ouida said,
“We ended every meeting with, ‘What is the plan for our kids? What’s going happen when they grow up?’”
These four families are not alone. Many American families who have children or other family members with development disabilities are asking those same questions. According to recent statistics by the CDC, almost one in seven children have a developmental disability. When children with developmental disabilities are of school age, a plethora of social and recreational activities are available to enjoy, either in school or through children’s organizations. However, when children reach the age of 21 and age out of the public school system, social and recreational activities for adults with special needs become increasingly difficult to find. Samantha, Ashley, Ouida, and Penny wanted to change that.
In 2012, these courageous women formed the non-profit organization Blessings on the Plains. Their mission was to create a stimulating environment that would provide social and recreational activities for adults with developmental disabilities thus providing a sense of independence and self-reliance.
After forming Blessings on the Plains, these “Mothers on a Mission” crisscrossed the Southeast visiting other non-profit organizations that shared similar goals in an effort to research the art of the possible. They were able to refine their foundation’s mission while learning from other organizations through these visits, but they found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information. This in turn led to the mothers feeling paralyzed by the details, and as such, the big picture began to feel unattainable.
This process, which had been ongoing for four years, was not yielding the results they had hope for, so they decided to take a year off to do a Bible Study and discernment process where they prayed for wisdom, direction, and for people to come to them so they could connect the people with the mission. After they finished their year of prayer and discernment, they waited with new ears and new eyes to see who and what God would send to them. Shortly thereafter, the opportunity for Samantha and Penny to go The Exceptional Foundation in Birmingham presented itself. They learned that The Exceptional Foundation started their day program in 1993 to serve local members of the community with developmental or physical disabilities who had aged out of the school system. They came back on FIRE with infectious enthusiasm! After sharing their remarkable experience and seeing how the visions of The Exceptional Foundation and Blessing on the Plains were aligned, they knew what they needed to do.
In the summer of 2016, Blessings on the Plains officially became The Exceptional Foundation of East Alabama (EFEA), the seventh affiliate of The Exceptional Foundation, and our official history began. The initial board convened in September 2016 and set the ambitious goal of opening EFEA’s doors one year later. During that year, funds were raised, staff members were hired, programming was developed, partnerships were created, volunteers were welcomed and, thanks to East Alabama Medical Center, a facility to house EFEA was secured.
On September 13, 2017, EFEA officially opened its doors and welcomed 30 new participants. EFEA aims to increase the number of participants year after year as we continue to serve the needs of those with development disabilities in our community.