When Sil Gleim of Franklin, Tennessee met Allen Jordan, an adult with special needs, at her church, she was drawn to Allen’s smile, warmth and desire to connect with others. “I sing in the choir,” Sil says, “and when I look down at the congregation, I always see Allen smile at me every Sunday morning. It makes my week.”
A beloved member of the church for years, Allen enjoys a strong community of support there. But Sil wondered what kind of support Allen received during the rest of the week, so when she learned that he attends a non-profit called BrightStone that is dedicated to providing comprehensive work and social support to adults with special needs, she took a tour. Sil saw adults with a variety of mental and physical disabilities engaged in a wide variety of activities—painting and glazing ceramics, learning job skills, exercising, singing and taking part in all the other programs BrightStone offers—and knew her friend was in great hands.
“It just warms your heart,” Sil explains. “You see the pride the students have in what they’re doing and accomplishing. You can’t walk in without feeling your spirits lifted.”
Refusing to Accept the Status Quo
BrightStone was founded in 1999 by Brenda Hauk, who had been working for a local school system to head up its new program to prepare special-needs students and their families for the transition from school life into the world at large. Brenda’s mandate was to help them discover the next chapter in their lives, but after researching community support in the form of job training, transportation and even housing that might be available to these young adults, she was disheartened. “I found that the avenues of support were almost totally void,” Brenda says. “I was shocked and saddened to see that we had put so much work into their education up to this point, but what was it for if they were going to go home and sit in a lounge chair for the rest of their lives?”
That realization created a turning point in Brenda’s life. “I took a deep breath,” she remembers, “and asked, ‘Am I going to stand by and accept this or be part of the solution?’”
She resigned her position as a teacher, put together a board of directors and found a local church willing to provide rent-free space in order to create a positive, productive environment for adults with special needs. BrightStone was born. “The icing on the cake was that the staff members of the church fell in love with us—they absolutely loved our adults, would eat lunch with them, and became entrenched in the lives of these individuals that they never would have closely encountered,” Brenda says.
The program continued to grow, and eventually—beginning with a donation of 1.25 acres of land—they broke ground on a new building of their own. BrightStone has been in its new location for nine years now and currently serves 38 special-needs adults ages 21 and up. (The oldest student currently is 64.) Meanwhile, BrightStone is planning to expand again, having acquired even more land for a future horticultural program; a new, state-of-the-art health-and-wellness facility and aquatics center; and a hippotherapy (therapeutic horseback riding) program. Eventually—perhaps the most impactful development to come—BrightStone will be adding residential facilities as well.
Brenda says it’s all about celebrating the individual and improving quality of life for those who can’t advocate for themselves. She recounts the story of being in her office and hearing people crying in the lobby. It turned out to be the mother and aunt of an adult family member with special needs who had become so depressed and disengaged he could barely be coaxed from his bedroom.
“Now they were standing here in tears, saying, ‘Oh my gosh! Look at him—I can’t believe it!’ she remembers. “He had been at BrightStone for all of three days, and they couldn’t believe the change. It happened because now he was with peers—people who laugh with him and not at him. He is now about to be president of our Citizens Council. He takes people on tours of Brightstone and can tell our story better than I can.”
With the staff working closely with students to identify and build upon their strongest skills, they often succeed in helping to place them paying jobs off campus, as well. Most of these continue to come to Brightstone during their off days to enjoy the social engagement in this special place that has become a home away from home.
A Community Embraces BrightStone’s Cause
BrightStone takes no government funding and is financially supported by student tuition; private and corporate gifts; and fundraising, including several major events held every year.
Inspired by her tour of BrightStone, Sil wanted to help support its mission in any way she could. Her church now hosts an annual fish fry that raises more than $1,500 for BrightStone. Two years ago, she also decided to participate in “Bowlability,” a popular BrightStone fundraiser held every August. Sil recruited friends from church as well as colleagues from Regions to participate. Last year, Sil was able to help form four different teams—two made up of members of the church, one headed up by another church member who recruited people from her own workplace, and the fourth made up of Sil’s coworkers. Regions also became an official lane sponsor.
Along with raising much-needed funds for BrightStone, these events provide an opportunity for BrightStone to take its students out into the community to interact with others. Randy Elliott, director of advancement at BrightStone, is a huge proponent of this effort. “We want BrightStone to be visible in the community, and for the community to have a chance to interact with our students, so we’re not just tucked out of sight. I think a lot of people, because they don’t have the social interaction, don’t know what’s waiting for them in the way of a blessing to encounter a special-needs adult.”
For Sil, that’s another great aspect of Bowlability. Not only does she take pride in seeing her church, friends and coworkers join her in supporting a great cause, but she gets to see BrightStone students out having fun along with everyone else. Allen even bowls on her team.
Randy says seeing students make those kinds of connections reinforces that the program is working. “These students have tremendous desire to love and be loved,” he explains. “They’re the most wonderful folks to be around, and we get excited about seeing the community celebrate diversity in this way.”
Sil Gleim is a Regions associate.