By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
When Vestavia Hills’ Jim Sturdivant looks back on his life before he had his first child, he sees a distinct line between the “before times” and the “after times.”
“Fatherhood in general definitely made me more responsible,” he said. When he first learned in 1989 that he was going to have a child, he had what he acknowledges is the common epiphany. “Being a future father makes you look at the world differently than you did before,” he said.
After Jim and his wife, Susan, welcomed their oldest son, Robert, they became the parents of twins, Adam and Daniel, and later their youngest, Thomas.
Back when they had only one child, Jim recalls talking to a friend and saying he was a bit worried he might not be able to love another child as much as he loved Robert.
“He said to me, ‘What happens is your heart just gets bigger,’” Jim said. “He was right, that’s what happens.”
He’s now watching his oldest son take on the role of father to the first granddaughter, Addie. His advice to young fathers like Robert is to remember to breathe and try not to look too much into the future, because it goes by fast.
“I feel very blessed to be a father and I feel that my children have taught me much more than I have ever taught them,” he added.
Jim’s son Daniel has given him a special insight to some of life’s greatest lessons.
Daniel was born with Down syndrome.
In parenting their son with special needs, Jim and his wife were dunked into a Birmingham community that is not only close-knit but proactive.
In fact, Jim recalls being contacted by someone with The Bell Center for Early Intervention in Homewood very early on in Daniel’s life.
“From the beginning, we always felt that there were a lot of people out there who were ready to help,” Jim said. “You felt like you weren’t the only one.”
Nevertheless, Daniel grew up with three brothers who were having typical life experiences. It’s no wonder that he would want those same things for himself.
“He was constantly a part of what they were doing and was exposed to whatever they were doing,” Jim said. “He always has had a strong interest in being involved in community activities. He’s a real people person.”
Through Daniel’s time in the Vestavia Hills City Schools system, the family became well acquainted with fellow Vestavia student Lindy Cleveland, née Williamson, who in no small measure changed Daniel’s life after his schooling.
Cleveland served as a peer helper. Her brother, Jordan, also has Down syndrome. In fact, Jim’s mother taught Jordan in kindergarten at Green Valley Elementary School when she already was a grandmother to Daniel.
“(Lindy) has been in his circle ever since I can remember,” Jim said.
Susan noted that she has more than one family photo of Lindy and Daniel in middle school and high school.
So, when Cleveland reached out to the Sturdivants in 2013 to tell them she was creating a day program for her brother and other young adults with special needs, there was no question that they were in.
“Daniel was finishing high school, so we were very interested in having something for him to do,” Jim said. “We didn’t want him to just be sitting around.”
He noted that there were many other programs in the area that Daniel participated in, and there always was the possibility he could get a job.
“We certainly didn’t feel like we didn’t have anything, but we were still worried about him having a gap or lack of opportunities to do enriching, fun and productive things,” Jim said.
Jim recalls the days of dropping Daniel off at the Williamson’s home in Liberty Park.
Daniel is one of the six “founding fathers” of Unless U, a nonprofit that provides a day program in a college-style experience for adults with special needs.
“Daniel loved it from the beginning,” Jim said. “He has always loved it and has always been excited about it. That has never changed.”
Fans of Unless U
Unless U is a part of the Sturdivant family; it’s even a part of their family dinners.
The Sturdivants don’t begin their meal with the blessing but, instead, say it around the middle or end of the meal. It’s Daniel’s job to remind them.
“When he says the blessing, he always prays for Unless U,” Sturdivant said. “In the last three or four years, it’s been Unless U’s new building, or that we find a place … to build. Lately, it is for the new Unless U building and for Lindy, who works so hard.”
Jim saw the organization grow out of Cleveland’s house, flourish at Shades Mountain Church and now move to a freestanding facility in the shadow of the Sturdivants’ church, Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church.
In addition to being parents of a student, Jim serves on the board and Susan is on staff as a speech pathologist. Robert serves on the organization’s junior board and his wife, Brittany, a professional photographer, takes photos for Unless U.
In addition, Adam and Thomas help out whenever they can. Jim said they have always been ready to help out as drivers, chaperones or even manual laborers around the new property.
“My youngest son and I were up here helping sod a good portion of the area about a month or so ago,” Jim said.
Serving on the board, he has seen just about the entire process to build a campus unfold, a journey that hasn’t been short or easy.
In fall 2018, Jim, Susan and Daniel participated in a “groundbreaking ceremony” for the facility’s site next to Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church, though it didn’t actually include a groundbreaking. That happened more than a year later, after much site prep. Cleveland even jumped on a backhoe for that occasion.
“To finally see it be here and to also have it largely, if not totally, debt free is amazing,” Jim said.
Dedication to the Future
In May, Daniel and fellow Unless U students were able to see the facility for the first time with a large audience to help celebrate.
When Jim looked around the room, he saw familiar faces of people he had a connection with through the special needs community. He also saw the faces of people there simply to support the cause.
There were prominent members of the local city government and chamber of commerce in attendance, as well as representatives of companies that helped create the facility.
“People put their sweat equity into this facility,” he said.
Jim’s dedication to the success of the organization is not only for Daniel and his peers; it’s also for those families to come. Children with special needs finishing up their high school careers will have a place to graduate to.
“I think it says to people who are new parents or relatives and friends of a special needs family that our society values your special family member,” Jim said. “We think it’s important that your son or daughter has a place where they can go and feel like they belong. That’s what this place is.”
Not only is it a place of support for other parents but a place that teaches the wider community that people with special needs have much to give and are truly worth investing in. Jim sees it every day as Daniel’s father.
“Daniel may not be able to do math problems very well, but when it comes to the things that really matter in life, he is far above me,” Jim said. “When you get the people in this community together, that realization is easier for others to see and it becomes stronger.
“You realize that we in the typical population have a lot to learn from these special people, if we would just slow down and let them teach us.”
As Father’s Day weekend rolls around the corner, Jim can rest easy knowing that Unless U’s facility welcomed students to their own campus for the first time on June 14.