By Keysha Drexel
When the members of the Exceptional Foundation’s Junior Board approached her 10 years ago with a new fundraising idea, executive director Tricia Kirk admits she was less than impressed with the plan.
But a decade later, the annual Chili Cook-off has become one of the signature fundraisers for the nonprofit group that helps mentally challenged men and women engage in social and recreational activities after they reach the age of 21.
“I thought it was the worst idea I had ever heard,” Kirk said. “But the first year, the cook-off raised $45,000. I have never been so impressed with a group of people pulling off such a successful project.”
Billy McGruder, a board member at the Exceptional Foundation and one of the Chili Cook-off founders, said the event has become something folks in the Over the Mountain area look forward to each year.
“This annual event has developed a loyal following across a diverse audience base because it is a fun, come-as-you-are outdoor party offering good food, live music and friendly competition,” McGruder said.
This year’s friendly competition will be March 8 from 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. in the Colonial Brookwood Village parking lot. The Red Hot Chili Mutuals from Northwestern Mutual, the title sponsor of the event, will be back to defend their 2013 title. Regions is the presenting sponsor of the 2014 Chili Cook-off.
Kirk said the cook-off has come a long way in the 10 years since the junior board first proposed the fundraising idea.
“They had heard about a chili cook-off fundraiser in Mobile and sort of based our fundraiser on that idea,” Kirk said. “It was amazing to watch a bunch of young people, professionals, getting excited about it and to see everybody doing their jobs to make sure it turned out well.”
The event was originally held in the Exceptional Foundation parking lot at the corner of Oxmoor Road but moved to Colonial Brookwood Village last year.
“It just keeps growing every year, and the support we get from the community has been amazing,” Kirk said.
The cook-off is important to the Exceptional Foundation not just because it puts a spotlight on what the organization does, Kirk said.
“We don’t receive state or federal funds, and our participant fee makes up only about 4 percent of our budget,” she said. “The funding from the cook-off is very important to our mission here.”
That mission started in 1993 when the Exceptional Foundation was formed. Initially, a small group of mentally challenged individuals were meeting every day at the Homewood Park and Recreation building.
“The city of Homewood was our number one supporter then and the city, the police, the fire, the paramedics, they still support us,” Kirk said. “The whole community is just amazing.”
A capital campaign in 1999 allowed the Exceptional Foundation to build its own 12,000-square-foot recreational and administrative facility adjacent to Homewood Park.
The Exceptional Foundation provides year-round services to individuals with special needs who have reached the age of 21 and no longer receive services from school systems.
“The people we service run the risk of kind of getting lost after they graduate from high school,” Kirk said. “What we’re trying to do here is to teach people that our participants are just like all children. They want to be with people who are like them and they want to do all the things that young people want to do. They want to play Wii, they want to go to prom, they want to go to concerts with their friends.”
Daily programs at the Exceptional Foundation include field trips, competitive sports teams and social events, she said.
The overall daily goals of the Exceptional Foundation, Kirk said, are to enhance the lives of its participants through a variety of activities and provide a community for the mentally challenged population.
“Inclusion, being a part of something, is very important to everyone, and it’s important to our kids here, too,” she said.
The Exceptional Foundation also seeks to serve its participants’ families, Kirk said.
“It’s also about taking care of the caregivers, or offering services to the whole family,” she said. “All of our participants are wonderful, unique people, but still, having a mentally challenged child can put a lot of stress on the entire family.”
Kirk said the reception to the Exceptional Foundation in the early years showed her just how much its services were needed.
“People didn’t know where to turn back then, and when we first got started, the parents were just so thankful to have a resource in the community,” she said.
The organization quickly outgrew the facility that was built in 1999, and in 2006, a capital campaign began to fund a 12,000-square-foot addition in order to meet rising enrollment numbers. Brasfield & Gorrie built the addition to the original facility, Kirk said.
But the Exceptional Foundation is still growing, she said.
“We’re in the process of trying to purchase the two lots adjacent to us, and we’re working with the city with that,” Kirk said.
And it is not just in the Over the Mountain area where participants and their families are benefiting from the programs offered by the Exceptional Foundation.
In 2009, the organization was contacted by a group in Memphis, Tenn., looking for help in modeling programs for the mentally challenged in its community.
A second location of the Exceptional Foundation was established in Memphis and immediately sparked interest from other cities such as Fairhope and Indianapolis, among others.
With the hope of expanding its services across the country, the National Exceptional Foundation was established in 2011 to assist with the development of additional locations.
Fundraisers like the group’s annual art show and chili cook-off will help the Exceptional Foundation serve even more people in the years to come, Kirk said.
“We have fun events like the chili cook-off, but really, there’s something very meaningful behind them,” she said. “This cook-off helps to maintain the quality of the programs that our participants, that the people who work here, demand. We don’t accept anything less than an ‘A’ effort for our young men and women.”
Kirk said she knows all of the cook teams at this year’s chili cook-off will be bringing their “A” game to the event.
“The teams really get into the competition, and the crowd just gets bigger and bigger every year,” she said. “We are so blessed to be a part of a community that supports us and believes in what we do.”
The 2014 chili cook-off will start at 10 a.m. in the parking lot of Colonial Brookwood Village and will also feature food, drinks and live music. Tickets are $10 in advance or $15 at the gate. Children ages 12 and younger get in free.
For more information, visit www.exceptionalfoundation.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 870-0776.