From the Archives: A Good Staff

cincibility archive
Originally published October 9th, 2013
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He arrived with greasy hair, an otherwise nice looking man usually in clean clothes now showing up in dirty t-shirts, falling asleep in his chair, nodding off.  Apologetic, he’d right himself quickly, mumble an “I’m sorry,” and then drift back asleep, again, slouched.

We asked what was up, what was going on, talked about needing to go to bed at an earlier hour, offered suggestions for ways to get a good night’s sleep.

We called home and asked if anything had changed.  Mom, Dad, had no suggestions.  “Maybe he’s still adjusting to living on his own?” they wondered aloud.

Weeks later, he said what it was: “Gary.”  His staff watched TV all night in a small group home apartment where the bed faced the TV with only a thin wall to block out noise.  But the thin wall didn’t block out noise.  The TV was loud, always on, and he couldn’t fall asleep with Gary on the couch, the flickering glow of late night shows, the constant noise.

And because Gary was busy watching TV late into the night, Gary sometimes didn’t help him in the shower.  Without Gary’s help, a shower couldn’t be had.

But why didn’t you say anything? we asked.  Why didn’t you tell us what was happening?  Why didn’t you tell Gary to turn off the TV and to do what he was there to help you with?

“Because he was a good staff” he replied.  Continue reading here

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I’m three months into my new job at Starfire. The lessons and experiences are piling up every single day; so when I can, I try to reflect on the ones that really stick out. So let me set the scene: Jerry and I are walking through MicroCenter Mall. We are surrounded by glowing rectangles, each boasting faster and bigger and more.  I might be the only woman in the store. We meander through aisles, eventually reaching a cove of laptops and tablets—this is Jerry’s domain. He eagerly swipes through the tablets on the table, showing me shortcuts he’s learned. His hands aren’t very nimble but he loves technology and I’m impressed with his dexterity with these shortcuts.

We are just there to browse. MicroCenter is a new place for both of us and hell, I can get geeky if I need to. I assume that this place will be like used car lot though, with salesman ready to tell me how much I need this new processor-thing and oh, by the way, I love that jacket. I mentally prepare myself on I-275 for our response, “we’re just here to browse.”

At first I’m pleasantly surprised that no one approaches us in the laptop cove. Without interruption from commission-hungry employees, we’re free to surf the net. Jerry and I casually research some upcoming events at the Cincinnati Observatory. He shows me some projects he’s worked on, the telescopes he and his dad have built together, and of course, the latest pictures of Pluto. We sit there intently using this brand new laptop for 15 minutes or so. A couple of times I see an employee approach and I hold my breath—only to see his pass us by to ask someone else if they needed help.


We’re done with the laptops and back in the flotsam of cords and wires and user manuals. I should mention here that Jerry uses a walker to get around. When I’m walking with Jerry, I’m always aware of it. Is it going to scratch that person’s car? It shifts in the back of my car and now keeps bumping against the back of our seats. Sorry, Jerry. I’ll move it again when we stop. He’s pretty hard on his walker, crunching it over crumbling sidewalks, tugging it sharply around corners, pushing it through unmown grass. Oh God, don’t break this damn thing, Jerry. The walker makes noise. It squeaks and clangs as we traipse around MicroCenter. Sorry, fellow shoppers, I think to myself but then, I don’t have to apologize. Deal with it, fellow shoppers.

The store is full of dudes. There’s one in every aisle and I’m starting to notice a pattern. As we go down each aisle, it’s like we’re invisible. The dudes don’t look away from whatever microchip they’re hunting down but just…move out of our way. It’s effortless. We’re just a presence that they unconsciously move away from. I notice this because it’s literally happening in every aisle. I start to make a mental game of it…is this guy gonna move—whoops, there he goes! Invisibility!

People ask, “Which superpower would you rather have, flying or invisibility?” Everyone always says flying. Why? Invisibility could be cool. You could spy on the President or freak out your enemies. But I’ve never ever heard anyone choose invisibility. I think we all quietly recognize that invisibility isn’t really a superpower. Flying is transcendent, awesome, and divine. Invisibility means no one knows you’re there. If you’re not there…who the hell cares?

I’m sad as Jerry and I leave MicroCenter. I’m realizing that Jerry, who has ingeniously figured out a way to manage complicated machines with a few buttons on the keyboard, who forces his walker over rugged terrain, who builds and dreams, who wants a bagel , who loves random acts of kindness, who worries when the food pantry’s shelves get a little bare when he shows up for his volunteer gig, who sings to me in the car sometimes…Jerry doesn’t really exist for some people.

But that’s the work of Starfire, right? To make the invisible visible.


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If you’re a person with developmental disabilities looking for a group exercise class, you might find yourself being funneled into services for people with “needs” like you. You’ll sign up for a class through this special service, and begin attending classes that are created especially for people with developmental disabilities. Maybe the class being offered is 10 miles from your home, but it’s what you signed up for (and it’s all they offer). While you’re there, maybe there is a volunteer or staff person who doesn’t have disabilities. They’re there to join the class with you – and you love having them there but depending, it might feel odd, like chaperoning. By the end of it you’ll find that the class is sort of like you’d imagine any fitness class to be, and you like it.

But part of you knows that a “group fitness class” in any other sense of the term  does not look like a room full of people who share the same (often negatively perceived) label as you. You have a choice to attend this class, no one is forcing you to. But at the same time, the options in front of you don’t always look the same as the options laid out in front of a person without disabilities.

Choice 1: Attend a group fitness class with other people with disabilities

Choice 2: Attend a group fitness class in the community

Choice 3: Stay home

What choice would you make? Probably not unless you are living with a developmental disability or you are a parent of someone with disabilities do you truly know how weighty Choice 2 can feel. The anxiety of trying something for the first time and meeting new people is loaded with a history of setbacks and other challenges. Especially when the majority of services for people with developmental disabilities operate under a model of providing separate activities for you, it’s difficult to travel down the road less taken. And it’s likely that without these services, however imperfect, you’d be sitting at home instead of having any kind of social life. Your experience already tells you that for various reasons, not withstanding the nature of your disability making you inherently “different” than others in the community, that trying to fit in outside of the “service world” comes with a litany of new challenges. Why make things harder, when there are good services available that will create a social life for you? Let’s not forget that with these services comes loads of comfort and reassurance for your parents and the community alike. You’re taken care of.

Still, if your simple goal is to start exercising with other people, might it be worth it to channel just part of your efforts toward tapping into what the community already has to offer? Might it be possible that there are also people in the community who are willing to chip in some support to you (not all, but whatever they can give), and not get paid?

There are dozens of Zumba classes happening around the city every month — some of these might even be close to where you live. The schedules are easily accessed on local fitness center websites. So you do your research and show up, right? You pay for the class – and voila! You belong. Easy peasey lemon squeezy?

Maybe you’ve caught on, but the story we’re trying to tell at Starfire looks different than a separate life for people with developmental disabilities, BUT (I know, there is a but) a full life for people with disabilities also doesn’t come as easy as just “showing up” in the community. Were it, I promise I would wrap up this whole blog post up right now with a nice little bow and cherry-on-top and leave you to the rest of your to-do list.

It’s just not that simple. There are too many preconceptions, too many real concerns for safety, and too many tangled support systems in a person’s life that make it difficult for them to enter a room without the others in that room, or their caregivers, or their family having a whole lot of limiting beliefs around what it will take to include them.

The important part (that took us 20 years to learn) is not putting up roadblocks that take away the possibility of an integrated, meaningful life for people. One of those roadblocks (that we’ve had to dismantle at Starfire) is operating under the sole assumption that people with disabilities can only have a full life if services recreate a community-esque social life FOR them.

A life, ordinary, purposeful, and in the community – truly in the community, for a person with developmental disabilities does take work. It requires a different way of doing things from what most people have learned, and that means hard work. Beth is in the middle of this journey. For a couple years now, she has been working with Starfire and her family to build a community of Zumba lovers around her. Week after week, we encouraged Beth to show up at her local rec center to take ordinary community classes. Soon, her family got on board and it became a whole team effort. There was no middle man, besides Starfire’s staff slowly helping facilitate relationships with the other women in the class. She started slow and learned her way into it. She grew more familiar with the steps and the songs a little more each class. Friendships started to emerge with certain instructors whose children’s names she learned and birthdays she remembered. If she doesn’t go one week, she’s missed. If the instructor needs an extra hand, she’s asked to help. Once this network got established in her life, Starfire then helped Beth and the other women deepen their connection by brainstorming around a project idea that they could work on together. Beth became the catalyst for a Zumba fundraiser for Children’s Hospital that she and her group of Zumba-goers organize. Next year will mark the 3rd annual Cha-cha for the Children (see video).

Yes, there are pro’s and there are con’s to recreating a special class for Beth to attend where she is showing up to exercise with other people who have Down Syndrome – like her. But when it comes to the pro’s and con’s of her joining a community fitness class in her neighborhood – with Starfire’s facilitation and support – the benefits far outweigh any con’s. Maybe the second option requires a little more courage at the onset, and a lot more time in the long run, but it is the way to deeper, more sustained relationships in Beth’s life and a richer, more inclusive community for us all. Who wouldn’t want to at least try?

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Starfire’s walls

Feeling a bit nostalgic these days, after nearly an entire month of being out of our building. Did you hear? We had a water main break — the pipe had been leaking below us for weeks (unbeknownst), and eventually that pool of collecting water came up through the floors, drowning the building.

I found some old photos I had taken of the things hanging on the walls throughout Starfire. Some goofy, some inspiring — each little glimpses into our culture and values as a non-profit.

Do I “miss” the building? I’m not sure it’s that. What I miss is the feeling of being there. Running into other people who share the same values, passing by a picture of Zak Morris or a poster of The Five Valued Experiences – and knowing what creative, important things are happening because of Starfire.

It’s not that I can’t get that feeling anywhere else. I’m learning that actually I might be better off not relying on one building, offset from the road, not entirely open to the public for all of my warm-fuzzy social interactions. While Starfire provides a clear, sure-fire spot for me to go and commune with “my people,” this flood and building close is literally forcing me out — into the neighborhood where I live. My work entails a good amount of time spent writing and staring at a screen, so I learned quickly not to spend all that time at home – instead my laptop comes with me and I go where I’ll run into people. I’m learning the names of the baristas at the coffee place down the street from me. Instead of taking a break at the water cooler, it’s a chat over the fence with a neighbor. I’m starting to see where I’m needed most and the people who matter to me most are not in one building, but all over my community in places and on sidewalks near my home and my family. This is where the long term relationships that will sustain me live. This is where I belong.

The building renovations will be getting underway soon and not too far down the road we will return. Tim has been working non-stop to ensure that Starfire has a rebirth that will do justice to the people with disabilities we are serving and to the mission we are driving toward. Knowing that this flood has been the most difficult for Starfire members who rely on the building as more than just an office space, this time for me has been a process of letting go and moving forward in a more mission-driven direction. My work no longer has walls. Instead it has community written all over it, and that is where Starfire belongs.

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These Weeds of Ours

Weeds are such personal plants.
They seem like intruders,
Breaking into our beds
And stealing the sun and soil,
Strangling and starving their more noble neighbors.
So we pluck them when we can.

We weep as we watch them pile up,
A day by day decay
Of fetid filth,
Filling up the secret corners of our lives.

And yet, over years,
They start to fall apart,
Turning over gently
In the heat of our hearts.

Then, slowly,
A soft sweet loam
Forms the fertile folds
That feed the seeds
Of fruits and flowers.
These weeds of ours.

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Robert’s Story: The Breakfast Club

Robert & Mike at Corner Bloc Coffee catching up

Robert & Mike at Corner Bloc Coffee catching up

It’s a cool March morning while Robert and I wait for an old friend of his to arrive.  We’ve set up a coffee date to try to finally get the two of them together.  Mike walks in, wearing a sweater and flip-flops, the typical Cincinnati uniform when the weather starts to turn a bit warmer.  He immediately hugs Robert, and plops down on the couch at Corner Bloc Coffee.  “I met Robert when he was working at Moeller High School over a decade ago.  We became fast friends.”  Mike says.  This coffee date was planned to have a conversation about how to prioritize their friendship in each others’ lives.  Out of the discussion, the idea of the “Breakfast Club” was born.  From the outside looking in, you would not know that Mike and Robert haven’t seen each other in a few months, a busy work schedule and a lack of reliable transportation always getting in the way, respectively.

The Breakfast Club (which launched in April) is an every-other-month speaker series where Cincinnatians are invited to share personal stories about whatever they are passionate about.  Citizens are invited to attend, ask question, talk candidly and start their Monday morning off without agendas or emails.  The idea is that people can be casual, grab a coffee and breakfast, and listen to someone talk about what’s important to them.

Mike explains why he was on board to start the Breakfast Club with Robert: “I feel as if Breakfast Club is an amazing way for Robert to connect with his community – but also an amazing way for everyone who attends to connect with one another. Robert is a catalyst for relationship-building. Always has been, always will be.”

Vice Mayor David Mann & Robert at the first Breakfast Club

Vice Mayor David Mann & Robert at the first Breakfast Club

In April, Mike and Robert hosted the first gathering and the first guest was Cincinnati Vice Mayor David Mann.  A crowd of about 12 or so people arrived, coffee and muffin in hand.  The Vice Mayor talked about his fifty years of marriage with his wife, his children and “God tapping him on the shoulder” when it came to same-sex couples’ rights, and why he’s stayed in public service for so long. “Politics is the art of what’s possible” he says, smiling.

“I like hanging out with Mike because he makes me proud to have a friend like him” Robert says after the first breakfast club has ended and the date has been set for June’s gathering.

Friendship, we know, is also the art of what’s possible.
Join the next Breakfast Club on Monday, June 29th.  Free tickets available here.

The Breakfast Club

The Breakfast Club

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On Presence and Imperfections

By the time I leave work on a Thursday I can expect a few missed calls, usually accompanied by voicemails left by my friend Ashley.  She disguises her voice and does funny accents, always with the same message, “This is your cat lady, Ashley, just wanna see if you’re coming tonight, soooo…give me a ring back!” Over the last two years, with these weekly calls, Ashley has been one of the most reliable people in my life.

Ashley and I met through Starfire.  I was still new to this world of community and inclusion, and Ashley was embarking on planning her collaboration project, a party to benefit local cat rescue groups.  As someone who liked cats, I joined her committee, and quickly went from being someone who liked both cats and Ashley to someone who loved both cats and Ashley.  During the planning process, we toured a local cat shelter and even though it was just a couple hours out of weeks of work, we both remembered it all year.  When the project drew to a close, Ashley asked if I remembered that shelter and if we could go back again, and thanks to her suggestion, two weeks later we were attending our volunteer orientation and picking out a weekly shift.

IMG_3367I have to admit, it wasn’t without some trepidation that I started volunteering with Ashley.  I’ve heard people use lots of words to describe Ashley: party animal, hilarious, thoughtful, sweet.  All qualities that make her an amazing friend, but not quite encompassing the same qualities you might say describe a good volunteer: hard-working, full of initiative, focused.  I was nervous as we went into our first shift, and it didn’t take long to see that Ashley and I weren’t going to fit any more perfectly into the volunteer mold than I expected us to.  She didn’t want to scoop cat litter,  and she would open doors to rooms and cats would run past her and escape into the common area. While other people zipped around with food and cats and brooms, she would sit down, and talk to cats, or quietly sit in a room and look at them. I cringed at every thing I thought was a mistake, worried that we wouldn’t fit in, or look like slackers. After a few weeks of worry, though, I realized the other volunteers barely took notice of things that seemed like big red flags to me.  Instead of everyone else judging us for the things I knew we weren’t very good at, they were really just happy to have us there to help at all.

Over time Ashley and I settled into our roles.  As we became regulars and I eased up a bit, we found things we were good at doing. We made friends with other volunteers, and started to feel really connected there.  We passed our 6 month mark, our one year mark, our two year mark, and all the while, even though all signs pointed to us being included there, a nagging part of my mind still focused on the imperfections.  Ashley’s job every week has been to change out the water dishes in the rooms, and she often leaves little drips and puddles on the floor that can get pretty slippery.  Nobody’s ever complained, or really even brought up it was her spilling, but every week I would see our imperfection in those drips and think “If I can get Ashley to keep from spilling, we’ll be able to be real volunteers here.”  On the way home, I’d agonize over the balance between meaningful self-improvement and impossible standards.  I’d rationally think that everyone makes mistakes, and we’re entitled to a few here and there, and I should just focus on the fact that we’re there and we’re contributing.  The next week we’d get to our shift and my emotional thinking would take over, and a voice in my mind would tell me we were imperfect and that was a big deal, and I would look for evidence to confirm my fears and I would question if we were really good enough to be there.

IMG_2284After a couple years of volunteering, never once having been to the shelter without Ashley, one night I found out she would be unable to make it.  I decided to go without her, even though we had pretty much been a packaged deal up until that point.  About halfway through the shift, another volunteer walked past me and mentioned how much it helps to have Ashley do the water every week, and how much time that one extra task can take up when she’s not there to do it.  And with that one simple comment, all my fears about Ashley’s imperfections went away, and I suddenly believed everything I had known up until that point.  Ashley has a disability.  She is not perfect.  She spills water, she lets cats out of their rooms, she refuses to scoop litter boxes.  And nobody really cares, because she is present and she is contributing and we love her.

While nothing on the surface changed that night, my perception of Ashley changed, and that made a huge change in our relationship.  Instead of seeing her imperfections as flaws that made us stand out, I saw them just as imperfect parts of a whole, real person. I freed myself up from fearfully trying to predict why people might not like her, and just focused on loving her for who she is.

Back in September, Heather, a fellow volunteer on our shift, was preparing to move out of state.  We had talked for weeks about her leaving, and how much we would miss her on our shift and around the shelter.  I checked my email one day and saw a thread of emails from the other women on our shift, which started with the following message from Heather:

I got the sweetest message through Facebook from Ashley. It took me a minute to figure out who it was because it came in under a different name. I almost cried when I figured out it was her.

Here it is –

i will miss you you will be missed very much thanks for helping out this is your cat lady ashley have a great week see you thursday

The next several emails were all about Ashley, how sweet she is, how to friend her on Facebook, and how she was part of a master plan to get Heather to stay.  It was so small, and felt so significant.  For years, in my mind, I had been fighting against Ashley’s “problems” to get people to like her, and nobody knew it but me. And nobody needed it but me.


I have always been someone who has let my fears get in the way of things.  When you’re afraid someone you love will fail, or look bad in front of friends, it can be so easy to fall into the well-meaning trap of wanting to fix them. And once you start to see that as your responsibility, it can be really hard to figure out how much fixing they need before they’re done. My relationship with Ashley has made me realize how easy it can be to let your fears get in the way not just of yourself, but in the way of someone else, too. Ashley never needed me to fix her. She was fine all along. I thought I needed to fix Ashley to quiet that nagging, fearful voice we have when we love someone with a disability. The voice tells us, “Society won’t want this person until they’re done being fixed.  They won’t belong until they’re perfect.” It’s a voice that’s quiet, and pervasive, and argumentative, and convincing. And once you stop listening to it, you realize it’s really, really, really dumb.

Over the last couple years, I’ve wondered if we were capable enough, if we were dedicated enough, if we were making too many mistakes, if people really wanted us there.  We’ve made plenty of mistakes.  So has everyone else.  And nobody has been fired or asked to leave. Because we all know that nobody’s perfect.

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Zak’s Story – A Year’s Work

Zak’s employment story begins with his mother. It’s the part that tries to go unseen, wants no recognition, but works day and night around the clock to build a life, against all odds and doubts, for her son.

With a national unemployment rate of 83% for people with developmental disabilities, people such as Zak have a challenge that goes beyond your basic job hunt. It requires a ton of working parts, each in symbiosis with the other. It takes big thinking, creativity, and resilience. In Zak’s case, it takes a mother.

“I knew I would have to be the one to advocate for him from the time he was born,” she said. “No one else was going to do it for me.”

For months, Zak and his mom sought out job openings, looking for the right fit. He would fill out every application as she guided him through the questions and they would make inquiries to potential employers. Then, when they found the right fit, she put the rest in order, securing the interview, contacting Starfire to put job supports in place, and setting up transportation to make sure Zak could get to and from work.

The result was Zak starting his job last August, where he works three days a week at the Dunham Recreation Center, close by where he lives. There he works in tandem with Tom, the main maintenance staff, and together they make sure the facility is in good working order.

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 5.23.19 PM“It’s a win-win. What we get is a good solid worker, and he fills the gaps where we need it. He takes certain things off the main maintenance guy’s plate, which takes some of the strain off,” said Jim, Zak’s employer. “Zak has jumped right in. He’s important. We feel he’s important.”

When Zak started his job, Andrew, a staff from Starfire was there to train him. He showed him how to flow through each task, encouraged him to keep working to the end of his shift, and provided a balance for the employer starting off. Gradually he eased himself out of the role, and Zak took the reigns. But one piece to this training that Starfire does uniquely is building relationships with co-workers. He helped make sure Zak invited each of them to his birthday party, and in turn his co-workers have reciprocated invitations.

Almost a year later, Zak says he loves his job. This of course is a really important piece to employment.

“They gave me my paycheck, I opened it up, and I had a grin on my face,” he said about getting his first paycheck. “It’s a neat place to work. It’s changed my life.”

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Long after the brackets closed, the fans cleared, the games ended, and the bar closed down at the Final Four FlyAway, lingering in Burke Neville’s mind was Starfire’s mission. That was 16 years ago, when the FlyAway was in its first year.

“After that Starfire became a huge part of our life,” said Burke, a Terrace Park resident. He and his wife Kelli chaired the FlyAway for several years, and eventually Burke was appointed Starfire’s Board President. At that time Starfire was focused on community supports to ease people with disabilities’ access to social activities.

“The outings were great. But when you got back to Starfire you got out of the van and that was it. It ended there,” Burke explained.

Then in 2010, Starfire began to transition toward its most innovative work. “Parents were asking us, ‘What’s going to happen to my son or daughter after I’m gone?’” Burke said.

That’s when he attended his neighbor, and Starfire member, Robbie’s PATH at his house (a PATH helps set a plan for the future that is supported by friends and family). Robbie is known around his neighborhood for being a prankster who loves to make people laugh.
“If you spend a day on your bike with Robbie, he will take you around to all the scenic parts of his neighborhood,” said Evan, Starfire staff. “And without fail, everyone you pass will wave to him.”

Robbie, Lucy, BurkeRobbie, Lucy, Burke

His PATH meeting was one of the most well-attended in Starfire’s history. Robbie invited the mailman, the local police officer, neighborhood garage mechanic, local Boy Scout troop leader, and tons of neighbors such as Burke. Likely due to his charisma and popularity, all of them came.

“I was blown away by how involved people are in the neighborhood,” Burke said. “It became clear to me that everyone in Terrace Park knows Robbie and cares about him.”
Since then Burke and Robbie have formed a deeper friendship together.
“I like to talk to Burke,” said Robbie. “We always bike ride together on the trail and I hang out at his house.”

“Before, it was easy for volunteers to just sign up for an outing,” Burke said. “Versus now we ask people to continue to engage and build relationships. When I spend time with Robbie, the memory doesn’t die. Which is really what it’s all about.”
Sharing Starfire’s message of inclusion with their kids became vital to the Neville family. They would read the story of Waddie Welcome to help their children understand the importance of including people.

A year ago, his son Jack joined a Circle of Friends club at Mariemont school to build a network of friends around his classmate Luke. They began by having lunch together once a month.

“It’s not just our small group of friends now, a lot of people are joining and being nice around Luke,” said Jack, a 7th grader who was recently asked to lead the group.

Before Luke was getting left out of invitations to birthday parties and get togethers. Now the group makes plans outside of school to get together, and last month Luke had friends at his birthday party to celebrate it with him.

“Luke really seems to enjoy the kids in his Circle of Friends,” Melissa Gaskey, Luke’s mom said. “With the ever-widening gap between Luke’s abilities and understanding of the world and that of his peers, we’re touched and encouraged by how other kids show support and friendship.”

Certainly, Jack’s passion to lead and get involved in bridging the inclusion gap did not come without the strong example set before him.

“It has to start with one person and one neighborhood,” Burke said. “And that’s what we’re going to do.”



Note:  This story was updated 4/14 to make the correction that Jack did not start the Circle of Friends group, but joined the group and was asked to lead it this year.

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Brooms to B-Ball (not your typical Cinderella story)

There’s a certain thirst inside someone who loves basketball as much as Desiree. It’s always there, waiting to be quenched. Patiently walking the court while pushing a broom in front of her, Des volunteers at her neighborhood recreation center by tidying up the space once a week. Collecting the dust beneath her broom, she glances at the hoops occasionally. Careful about her work, it’s clear Des holds the space in high regard but she won’t be satisfied until she’s on the court, ball in hand instead of broom handle.

Des started playing basketball when she was young. It is one of the things that she feels really good at, “I love basketball. I’ve been playing for a while,” she says. “I’m actually pretty good at it. If you take a look at me, for real.”
The sound of the basketball dribbling on the court marks the end of her volunteer shift. Weaving the ball between her legs and sinking layups at a steady pace, a thundering rhythm fills the court.

“My brothers played with me when I was a kid,” she says in between baskets. “My older brother Timothy used to teach me some pointers.”
Today, Des plays alone. But in a few months, she imagines a whole court filled with other players. Des’ next plan is to start a pick-up game with other women at the rec center. She is working with Ben, a staff at Starfire, to make this a reality.

“Right now people might think of us just as the custodians helping out,” Ben said, “But hopefully once they see us out playing and they see other people playing with us, they’ll start to be interested in building a relationship with us. And with you, specifically, Des.”

We know that building a social network for Des cannot be rushed – or created. If we try, there’s a real risk that she is only known for her disability, and that others see her as someone they “volunteer” for instead of as a mutual friend. That’s why Des’ friendships must start with what is important to her, and what’s important to the people she’s connecting with. For her, that looks like many nights playing basketball with other women, getting to know each other on and off the court, growing to love each other through a mutual affinity and respect. We know that this takes time. Luckily, what Des does have is just that.

Are you interested in playing basketball with Des? Contact Ben Lehman at to find out how you can get connected.

And if you’d like to come to the hottest March Madness event of the year, check out Starfire’s Final Four FlyAway!

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