By Emily Williams
As The Exceptional Foundation looks forward to its 20th anniversary in October, there is more to celebrate than ever before.
The foundation’s participation continues to rise and, as a result, the Homewood-based facility has been adding new activities to its programming for adults and children with special needs.
“20 years is a milestone we are really proud of,” said Public Relations Director Robbie Lee.
From August 2018 to January 2019, the foundation more than doubled the number of youth it served, from 72 to 169, and had five times more involvement in programming than the previous school year.
Community involvement has grown as a result of the continued success of the foundation’s programs.
The annual basketball game with the Homewood City Council and a partnership with the Junior League of Birmingham have been mainstays over the years, said Lee, but there has been recent growth in corporate volunteerism.
“It’s a great opportunity for some of the companies that support us to be able to see what we’re doing up close,” Lee said. “And going bowling and singing karaoke isn’t exactly a bad day of volunteer work.”
Volunteer growth paired with the increasing popularity of the foundation’s annual fundraisers – including the Chili Cook-Off, which draws hundreds each March – the foundation has been able to add more programs to its operations and expand offerings.
“We are excited to see so much interest in our youth program,” said Youth Program Director Susan Garrett. “As we continue to grow and gain feedback from the community, we are happy to be able to provide more programs that parents are looking for, like after-school activity camps, weekend respite events and full-day camps on school holidays.”
Over the past couple of years, the Youth Summer Camp has been expanded to include a new participant group for middle school students and started both track and field and golf programs for adult participants.
Having previously served as the foundation’s athletic director, Lee noted that he has been most excited about adding the After School Karate Camp.
“It’s something that we had talked about for a long time, and with the help of Oyama Karate in Homewood, we finally got it going,” Lee said. “And it has been great. The kids have had an absolute ball with it.”
According to Lee, the foundation plans to start a new internet safety program later this year. Through the program, participants will learn how to better protect themselves against any bullying or threats they could encounter while online or through social media.
“The one thing that has remained the same is just what a fun, joyous place this is,” Lee said. “It’s impossible to be in a bad mood here. Also, karaoke on Wednesday. That is etched in stone!”
‘200 Brothers and Sisters’
Through every activity, the foundation seeks to provide a safe space for individuals with special needs to explore recreational activities and develop life skills, all while supporting their social skills.
“As a parent of a youth program participant at The Exceptional Foundation I couldn’t be more thankful and proud to have a place where my daughter, Ellie, can freely go to play and feel a part of something extra special just like her sibling,” said participant parent Shelli Morrow. “We are so lucky to have such an amazing program in our community.”
On Sept. 20, the foundation will host its annual gala fundraiser Dinnertainment, which is just as much a celebration for participants as it is for the community.
Participants will serve as the headlining act for the sold-out event, showing off their skills in a “Grand Ole Opry”-themed showcase.
The evening offers a glimpse of what foundation staff and volunteers see every day, a sense of inclusion and a culture of acceptance.
“We serve participants from all walks of life, and once we’re all together, it’s like we’re one big family,” said Lee. “We look out for each other and are protective of each other. It’s like for 8 hours a day, you have 200 brothers and sisters.”