MEET UNLESS U: Lindy Cleveland saw a need for change and is working to make a difference for those with developmental disabilities.
What led you to the creation of Unless U?
The inspiration for Unless U comes from my brother Jordan. One of the joys of having a sibling with Down Syndrome is they possess a childlike spirit no matter the age, Jordan is 31 years old, and yet, Santa still comes on Christmas morning, Nick Saban is his hero, Disney World is his favorite place, and Belle (yes, from Beauty and the Beast) will forever be his true love. It hasn't always been this magical, though. Jordan did not understand it when my brother and I got to drive a car, and he didn’t. When we got to graduate high school and go to college, and he didn’t. When we got to move out and get married, and he didn’t. This has always been hard on Jordan and our family. You see, his disability doesn’t limit his desire to have the same opportunities as others.
In 2010, as starry-eyed freshman, my roommate, Becca, and I were squealing with excitement during move-in fay at the old Vail dorm at Samford. Yet, my enthusiasm was tempered with my brother’s visible heartache of wanting to move into the dorm too, to meet new friends, and experience all the “normal" milestones of growing up. The pain on his face that day was real, and the sadness was real. This sadness Jordan felt, challenged me to think differently. Why can’t Jordan go to college? Why can’t he take classes? Why can’t he still be with friends with people his age and go to dances, or events, or even have a t-shirt with his college name on it?
There weren’t many options for Jordan after high school, and we quickly realized that this was a dilemma that many families faced. In 2011, Alabama ranked 46th among the 50 states in spending on services for developmental disabilities. According to a report in 2014, our state is home to approximately 350,000 adults with Intellectual disabilities between the ages of 18-64. While some with less limitations may be able to work a part-time or full-time job, many are on waiting lists for community services, such as day programs, recreational programs, or job skill workshops while still others stay at home.
Parents of special needs children work tirelessly to push their student’s education all their lives. Then the day they turn twenty-one, all of that comes to a screeching halt. They are pushed out into the real world and are told they can get a job or play in a gym all day. These guys deserve more. Families have to make sacrifices with their finances, schedules, transportation, and time to find ways to enhance and enrich the lives of their young adult. Most parents must continue to work, forcing them to leave their adult child at home alone, or hire full-time nannies, or even rely on family and friends to help meet their unique needs. Like my mom, an incredible teacher had to retire way too young to be at home with Jordan. There is no “empty nest” for parents of adults with intellectual disabilities.
Because of how this affected us, we began to brainstorm a program that would be a solution for our family and hopefully, many others. During my time at Samford, I was able to take a non-profit and grant writing course. My class had four students in it and one of the godliest men I have ever known as our professor. I told him then, "this is more than just a class project for me. This is something I really want to do." During the time spent in the non-profit class, the professor helped create the blueprint of Unless U.
What was one of the challenges you faced with starting a non-profit, and how did you work to overcome it?
As I was wrapping up my senior year, it became clear that creating this non-profit was what we were supposed to do. After graduation, I spent many nights in the kitchen with my family wringing my hands and saying, “HOW?” HOW is this going to work? We don’t have any money; we don’t have a building, we don’t have any staff, we don’t have any resources, how in the WORLD are we going to pull this off? I was also thinking. “am I ever going to get paid so I can move out of my parent's house?” Also, how in the world can I ask someone to take a chance on leasing space to a 22 year old fresh out of college student for a program that has no equipment, no students, no money? My parents reminded me that God had not placed this calling in my heart to just step back and let me figure it all out by myself! He would not call you or me to do something for his Glory without walking alongside us all every step of the way. He is not a “Hands-off “ God!
So we prayed for wisdom, sought wise counsel from professors, friends, and leaders, and with God’s guidance, the dream began to take shape! I was also in this strange window of time in my life where I could be recklessly entrepreneurial; I was young enough that if it failed, my family and friends could pick me up, dust me off, and I could move on. But if it works then, I get to spend the rest of my life doing something I love. And good thing we did it then, because less than a year later I was married with a mortgage. God reminded me then; He would not call us to a task without qualifying us for the job.
How have you see the Lord at work through Unless U?
After graduating college in 2014, we opened the doors to Unless U with ten students and one staff member at Shades Mountain Baptist Church. Since then, we’ve grown to over 60 students and 14 staff members, and we get phone calls weekly from families that need services like ours. Unless U is a place where adults with developmental disabilities are not seen through the lens of their disability but rather through what they offer their community.
Our program offers a “college-like atmosphere” that is ability respectful, with classes in math, science, language arts, social studies, bible study, technology, social skills, speech, life skills, and elective courses, AND we have seen significant progress with our students academically and socially.
What does a typical day look like for a student at Unless U?
A typical day at Unless U begins with students sprinkling in the door between 7:00 am-9:00 am, and each day is a new challenge and a new string of blessings. Like when Mark walks in with his big bear hugs or Stephanie cries during bible study because someone she loves doesn’t know Jesus or when a student who barely spoke a word for years has to be told to be quiet and when Bailey moved all the way from Bear Creek, Alabama to live with her aunt in Birmingham, because she wants to attend “college” at Unless U. Oh, and my brother, Jordan, well, he is the assistant coach of the Unless U Unicorns Basketball Team, and takes great pride in being the “Big Man on Campus.”
Like “Regular” colleges, Unless U has the cheerleaders, jocks, the musically inclined, the “nerds,” the drama club, the artists, and the class clowns. Our students deserve just as much as everybody else. They deserve to have a college-like experience; they deserve to have really good friends and to simply have fun. Loving people isn't easy, it's hard and messy. But its always worth it. There are days when I think I could’ve done something different with my life, this job can be difficult, but when my brother walks through the door and says “I’m so happy to be here,” it makes it all worth it. Throughout this entire process, God has been faithful over and over again. I could spend hours telling you how he has closed windows and opened doors, how he has sent the exact right person at the exact right time again and again. Since opening Unless U, He has taught me that when he calls us to something, and we step out in faith and obedience, he always brings it to completion.
What’s one way you hope to see Unless U grow in the coming years?
In November of 2018, we launched a 1.3 million dollar capital campaign, Unless U Build, to raise money to build our very own school. While we have loved being at the church, we are outgrowing our space, and we have always wanted our own place to call home. We have been looking for a space for almost two years, and God has shut many doors. It has been time-consuming and, at times, a very frustrating process. And all of that heartache and frustration has led us to where we are today. Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church has graciously donated a piece of property adjacent to their parking lot for us to build our very own building. After the church donated their lot, Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Duncan donated the adjacent lot as well. This way, we can build all we need on one level. We held our very own Groundbreaking ceremony that November on our fourth anniversary. This building will include multiple classrooms, a fine arts room, a lunchroom, a kitchen, an outdoor patio, a library, and the Unless U Ice Cream shop, Called Unless U Scoops, where we will employ our students and sell ice cream to the public.
Unfortunately, due to rising construction costs, it is now projected that our building project is going to cost more like $1.7 Million. However, As of today, we have raised a little over $1.6 million in donations and three-year pledges. We have already begun construction on our new building and plan to move in by the end of the year. We are blown away by the way our families and friends have rallied around this campaign. However, our goal is to have the building ultimately paid for before we move in. How do we do this, you ask? “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not."
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