By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
March is a special month for the Exceptional Foundation. The first Saturday typically is spent among a sea of tents and a crowd of people while teams cook and serve more than 20,000 gallons of chili.
As with many widely attended events, this year’s Chili Cook-off has been rescheduled because of COVID-19 concerns.
Instead, the Exceptional Foundation will host a smaller, socially distanced event, the Chili Kick-off.
The event will be held March 6 at Cahaba Brewing Company.
From noon until 6 p.m. the event will feature a variety of musical performers, including The Wooks, Schmohawks and Friends, Will Cash and Matt Carroll.
The event will serve as a warm-up to the 17th annual Chili Cook-Off, to take place May 1.
According to foundation Executive Director Tricia Kirk, the annual Chili Cook-Off is never far from the minds of the foundation’s staff.
“The Chili Cook-Off is talked about almost year-round at the Exceptional Foundation, but we usually start to notice an increase in Chili Cook-Off excitement around the start of the New Year,” Kirk said. “During a typical February, our front office staff is moving full speed ahead getting ready for the event.”
Staff work for months to make sure the event runs smoothly, while participants eagerly await the big day that they get to spend eating chili and hanging out with their friends.
“The first weekend in March has been an important date for the Exceptional Foundation for 17 years, and we simply didn’t want to let that weekend pass without having some type of smaller-scale event,” Kirk said. “We have overcome a lot this year and believe that is something worth celebrating.”
One of the biggest hurdles during the past year, according to Kirk, has been adapting to the many changes the pandemic has created. For the children and adults with special needs who attend programs at the Exceptional Foundation, a good routine is essential.
“Many of our participants have been coming to the Exceptional Foundation on the same days, at the same times, for well over a decade,” Kirk said.
After COVID-19 lockdowns, the foundation had to make changes to the routine before reopening. In accordance with health guidelines, staff began implementing mandatory masks and temperature checks, lowering group sizes and spending more time deep cleaning the building each day.
Programs were adapted to safely serve participants, and virtual programs were created to serve those who aren’t able to visit the building. Once the plan was in place and implemented, Kirk said, the fun quickly followed.
“Adapting to challenging situations is nothing new to our participants at the Exceptional Foundation,” Kirk said. “In fact, many of our participants have been overcoming obstacles since the day they came into the world. I am amazed by the strength and resilience of the group of people we are lucky to be able to serve at the Exceptional Foundation.”
Kirk said the staff has done an “amazing” job adapting this year, creating safe options for all who attend the Exceptional Foundation – a place she likes to refer to as one of the happiest places on Earth.
“Our ‘new normal’ has really emphasized the importance of social connection for both our staff and participants,” Kirk said. “The friendships and community that the Exceptional Foundation provides is extremely special, and I am constantly reminded of how important this connection is to both the physical and mental health of our participants and staff.”
For more information, visit exceptionalfoundation.org.