My brother, Jordan, inspired us to start Unless U, a faith-based continuing education program in a college-like environment for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Jordan was my best friend throughout my childhood. We had so much fun together. But other children did not understand his needs, so I learned at an early age to be his advocate.
I also noticed that Jordan’s disability doesn’t limit his desire to have the same opportunities as others. He always wanted to be like everyone else. He did not understand it when my brother and I got to drive a car, and he couldn’t; or when we graduated high school and went to college, and he didn’t.
A turning point in my life came when I was moving into my college dorm. The hurt on Jordan’s face that day was real, and it stuck with me. The sadness he felt challenged me to think differently. Why can’t Jordan go to college? Why can’t he take classes, go to dances, or even have a t-shirt with his school’s name on it?
Throughout my college years, I thought about how to create something that would make it feel like Jordan was in college, too. God kept growing that desire in me every year. In one of my classes, I compiled a business plan for starting a school for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities that could be similar to a college experience. I felt God nudging me to pursue this and telling me to step out in faith. After all, if not, who will?
That day came shortly after college graduation. We started a pilot program in August 2014 in my parents’ home with six students. We were overwhelmed almost daily with all it took to create this and all the hurdles that had to be overcome. But my parents were very supportive of the idea and underscored God’s calling on me. They told me the Lord would not call me to do something and not provide. I quickly discovered the Lord would give us just enough to make it through each day.
Starting Unless U pushed me in my walk and trust in the Lord. I had this rare opportunity and window in my life where I could step out in faith and try to pursue this crazy dream. I was young enough that if I attempted this and it failed, then my family and friends could pick me up, dust me off, and I could move on.
Our school’s name, Unless U, came to me when we took a group of young adults with disabilities to a movie based on the book, The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. The quote says: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Unless U is a faith-based college experience for students that otherwise wouldn’t have it. We serve adults with developmental disabilities and their families by providing continuing education, life skills, social skills, and on-site job training. These services create an environment that promotes independence.
The curriculum caters to the “whole person” through an equal focus on students’ academic, social and spiritual wellbeing.
More people heard about what we were doing, and we started to grow. Our church agreed to lease us space, and we officially launched Unless U on November 4, 2014, with ten students.
Slowly but surely, more families inquired about our “University.” The Lord kept bringing more and more students our way, so much so that we developed a relatively long waiting list. We grew too big for the church and raised enough money to build our first campus in 2021. Then we expanded to a second campus a year later. What started as a dream in my parents’ house has now grown to 150 students on two different campuses. We have 35 staff members made up of retired educators, young teachers, fresh out of college graduates, and a whole host of volunteers. It’s incredible to see God’s hand in our ministry.
The University setting allows the students to develop relationships with old friends and make new ones. We have a core curriculum, electives, and intramural sports, like basketball, cheer, and much more. We begin each day with dancing, praising the Lord, and prayer, and then start our academics.
Unless U envisions a world where adults with developmental disabilities are not seen through the lens of their disability but rather through what they offer the community.
There is a huge need. There are 350,000 adults with developmental disabilities in Alabama between 18 and 64. Our population has many services until they’re 21 years old. But once they hit 21, all that comes to a screeching halt; there are just not many services for them. They are pushed out into the real world and are told to get a job or play in a gym all day. These guys deserve more. Families have to make huge sacrifices. They’re forced to leave their adult child at home alone or hire full-time nannies, or maybe rely on family and friends to help meet their unique needs. My mom had to retire at a young age to be at home with Jordan. There is no “empty nest” for parents of adults with intellectual disabilities.
The ministry would not be possible unless we abide in the Lord. The foundation of Unless U is based on John 15: 4,12: “Abide in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me….this is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.” We care because God cares. He cares for me, and He cares for each student. I’m constantly convicted and challenged by walking alongside them and doing life with them.
This job can be complex and incredibly challenging, but when my brother walks through the door and says, “I’m so happy to be here,” it makes it all worth it.