By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
Over six years ago, Vestavia Hills resident Lindy Cleveland was volunteering with a summer camp at United Ability and was asked to go on a field trip with some of the students to see the movie “The Lorax.”
One simple quote packing a whole lot of meaning stuck with her and lit a fire in her heart: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
The words are at the heart of the nonprofit she founded days later in her parent’s house with her brother Jordan, who has Down Syndrome, and his close friends.
The nonprofit, Unless U, seeks to provide faith-based continuing education and teach development and life skills to adults with disabilities. It now has its own facility where students like her brother can achieve a college-style experience.
“My story and my connection started in 2003 with some special Hoover Bucs behind me,” said board President Ammie Akin.
A clinical professor for the University of Alabama’s Center for the Study of Ethical Development, Akin’s career in education began at Hoover High School, where she served as an exceptional education teacher.
“It really is a remarkable story, but the most important storyline today is the story of a brother with a disability, a sister with a vision and a God with a plan,” Akin said.
Though the facility isn’t completely finished, community members, Unless U students and families gathered for a celebration May 14, entering the building to be greeted by the inspirational Dr. Seuss quote.
When Unless U first outgrew Cleveland’s parents’ house, she reached out to her church, Shades Mountain Baptist Church, and the Rev. Danny Wood, who leased her space for Unless U in 2014.
“I told Danny, we’re only going to be here for a year or two,” Cleveland said to the crowd.
After finding the space at 737 Chestnut Street in Vestavia Hills, donated by Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church and Karen and Jerry Duncan, considerable work had to be done to create a campus.
The organization broke ground on the site on its fourth anniversary, in 2018, not knowing that the work to be done would be met with obstacles as great as a pandemic.
When she hired her contractor, Cleveland said she told him, “You need to armor up, because Satan is going to attack us in every way possible.
“He recently said, I’ve seen Satan attack before, but I’ve never seen him pitch a tent.”
Despite the struggles, visitors who toured the facility were greeted by high-tech classrooms, a library, a teaching kitchen, space for fine arts practices and other offerings.
After another few weeks of work, the facility’s ice cream shop, Unless U Scoops, will be complete. The shop will be a vocational opportunity for students as they sell ice cream provided by Big Spoon Creamery to the public.
Within the walls, Cleveland and her staff will be able to double the amount of students they serve and will continue to offer continuing education in academics, intramural sports and other areas.
Cleveland’s father, Doug Williamson, applauded the day and his daughter and thanked the many people who helped make the building a reality.
“Standing in this building today is a testament to our heart and our community as hundreds of you have financially supported this program,” said Williamson, who added that there is no debt on the facility.
“The funding for this building began with our students and families and it quickly became a communitywide effort. To all of you, we express our gratitude.”
Through teary eyes, he addressed his daughter, stating that words could not express his pride or her mother’s pride.
“We have watched your love for Jordan and his friends grow in your heart from the time you were a very little girl,” Williamson said. “It brings to mind Esther 4:14, ‘For perhaps you were born for such a time as this.’”
As Unless U looks forward to the future, leaders there have scheduled the 2021 Unless U Got Talent for Aug. 20 at The Lyric Theatre.
Funds raised at the event will support the completion of any remaining projects on the new campus building.
For more information, visit unlessu.org.