By Frank Stickney and photos by Kate Reali
Nestled among tall pine trees on a hilltop in Daphne, a group of people joins together to make our community better in a way most of us rarely see. Known as the Exceptional Foundation Gulf Coast (EFGC), they are a fully non-profit organization whose official mission statement is “to provide social and recreational opportunities to the special needs community of Baldwin and Mobile counties.” But their Executive Director Jennifer Flad’s description is much more reflective of their goals. In Jennifer’s words, the EFGC “provides a safe and caring environment for our Participants to expand their horizons, grow their self-confidence, make friends, and have fun.”
The EFGC is an affiliate of the first Exceptional Foundation in Birmingham, which was founded to serve individuals with special needs there by “targeting social and recreational objectives not met by educational institutions or the community at large.” The success of the original organization captured the attention of people throughout the Southeast who felt a similar desire to support their own special-needs communities. The Birmingham group serves as a model, providing guidance for affiliate organizations without being directly linked to them. In 2011, the Exceptional Foundation Gulf Coast was founded in Daphne, followed soon after by affiliates in Atlanta, Charlotte, and most recently in Auburn.
Before I went on site to experience the spirit of the Foundation in person, I spoke with Jennifer by phone and asked her to describe what a newcomer to the EFGC might see and hear when walking in their doors on a typical day.
“Someone new walking through the doors of EFGC for the first time would see, quite simply, love. On any given day at any given time there are all kinds of different activities happening at the Foundation. You might see our Special Olympics basketball team, The Rainmakers, having practice. Or we might be in the kitchen while our Participants learn how to prepare healthy and delicious meals. Or maybe you would see a group of Participants heading out on a field trip to a local spot. Or if it’s art day, our group will be working on creating masterpieces to take home or to have ready to show and sell at our annual fundraiser, Exceptional Arts. This is just some of the activities we are involved with day to day.”
The foundation doesn’t have a dedicated facility of its own, but instead depends upon a very generous arrangement with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Daphne, operating out of the church’s Life Center – a large building designed to accommodate a range of activities and events, outfitted with numerous meeting rooms, a great hall, and a commercial kitchen.
On the day I visited, the Life Center’s indoor basketball court served as the setting for the morning’s activity. Participants and volunteers were all seated in a huge ring of folding chairs set up in the center of the court as loud, energetic pop music played from a nearby speaker. In the middle of the ring, people took turns standing up and dancing their hearts out, the others clapping or playing along with instruments. Smiles were everywhere you looked. I was witnessing the mission of the Exceptional Foundation in action, and it was clear why (as Jennifer told me) the Participants had come up with their own name for the foundation: “The Happy Place.” The positive energy in the room was uplifting, the sense of community apparent.
It’s a testament to the Foundation’s intention to honor the dignity of the people whose needs they serve that they refer to them as “Participants,” a simple, straightforward label that doesn’t attempt to explain why someone is there. The word is deliberately capitalized throughout their literature, and it stood out to me as an important part of their message.
The EFGC depends primarily upon grants and donations to continue their work. While they’re tremendously thankful for the facilities that St. Paul’s provides, Jennifer did mention their goal to have a more permanent space of their own, and someday to provide satellite spaces in other parts of Baldwin and Mobile counties, expanding their ability to serve the special-needs community in our area. Readers are encouraged to support the organization’s mission in any number of ways: donations are welcome, and they are always looking for “energetic volunteers.” But the two most popular (and fun!) ways to participate are their annual fundraisers: Exceptional Arts in the spring (April 30 this year), and the EFGC Golf Tournament in the fall.
I decided not to ask Jennifer any questions about the kind of medical conditions the Participants might have, because despite being socially conditioned to pigeonholing our fellow humans by afflictions, it is finally starting to trickle into public awareness (and my own) that doing so diminishes or outright ignores another’s personhood. All of us are brought into this universe with strengths and weaknesses, mixed fortunes, and blessings presented with challenges outside of our control. To qualify the Foundation’s Participants as “special needs” is as specific a description we who aren’t their caretakers need. The Participants at EFGC are – like its staff and volunteers – simply people. Exceptional people, in every sense of the word.