Providing Opportunities, Influencing Lives. The Exceptional Foundation is a nonprofit organization that exists to serve mentally and physically challenged individuals.
Published: March 1, 2018
By: Paige Townley
Each day at the Exceptional Foundation is a little different. One day might be all about arts and crafts. Another may be full of athletic competition. Another day may entail a field trip to go bowling or to the movies.
Whatever is going on each day, one thing is certain: there’s lots of excitement, plenty of smiles, and constant fun. And Executive Director Tricia Kirk can’t imagine it any other way.
The Exceptional Foundation is a nonprofit organization that exists to serve mentally and physically challenged individuals, and they’ve been doing just that since it was first established in 1993. Initially, it started out as a group of special needs individuals who met up every day at Homewood Park. From there it grew, and by 1999, enough money was raised for the foundation to construct its own building near the park.
At the facility, the foundation works to fill the gap of social and recreational needs of these individuals that aren’t being met by educational institutions or the community itself. Essentially, these individuals were getting educational knowledge at school – and even some job training after school – but not getting opportunities to participate in other activities like sports teams and social activities or even time to socialize with peers.
“Special needs individuals may have their own unique challenges, but they still have the same wants as everybody else,” says Kirk. “They are also capable of seeing and understanding what others are doing. They see people playing on sports teams, hanging out with their friends and getting their driver’s license. They want those opportunities too.”
Providing those opportunities is exactly what the foundation exists to do. Participants can come in every day to socialize with peers or participate in all sorts of activities, like guitar lessons and exercise programs. Many of the foundation’s participants are already out of school, but for those who aren’t, there are after-school activities they can partake in each afternoon. There are also summer camps, sports teams, and all sorts of field trips – from horseback riding and bowling to the movies and the nail salon.
“We’ve even taken 36 of our participants to the beach the past few years because one of our participants told us that his sister got to go to the beach without their mother, and he wanted to do that too,” Kirk explains. “They want the opportunity to do these sorts of things, and we do our best to listen.”
Since Kirk has been executive director of the foundation beginning in 2001, she has done her best to listen to the requests of each individual, and she and the rest of the staff at the foundation have seen participation grow from just 18 kids a day to now an average of 180 participants per day. Annually, the foundation reaches almost 700 special needs individuals.
Come see the Exceptional Foundation at Birmingham Parent’s Special Needs Expo Saturday, March 10, 2018, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. – the host of the event.
“I still don’t call this a job,” she says. “I look at it as an opportunity that I have every day. I’m so blessed because I know that I wake up every morning for a reason. This is my purpose in life.”
With the impact the Exceptional Foundation is having on the greater Birmingham area, other cities across the country have looked to the foundation as a model to implement. Today, there are similar foundations in Indianapolis, Memphis, Auburn, Fairhope, Atlanta, Charlotte and Parrish, FL.
“People from these communities have traveled to Birmingham to train with us, and they’ve done so several times,” Kirk adds. “It’s amazing, and it doesn’t stop. People keep reaching out to us. How do you tell somebody no, that you can’t help their special needs children? So we always do whatever we can to help other communities model exactly what we do.”
And while striving to help other communities take care of their special needs individuals, The Exceptional Foundation continues to do everything it can to provide social opportunities to those who need it in the Birmingham area. “These kids and adults need a place to be social and make friends and have fun like everyone else does,” Kirk says. “They want it, and that’s what we are providing. We will continue to do what we can to enhance their lives.”
Paige Townley is a freelance writer.