This is a reflection from Katie, an intern who started a few months ago….Here are her first impressions of what it’s like to walk into a Starfire circle:

“Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.” -The Fray

Starfire is located in Madisonville in a very pleasant building.  What makes Starfire’s space pleasing to me is mainly the abundance of windows. These windows allow for plenty of natural lighting creating a bright and cheerful ambiance. There are also many rooms available for work, meetings, and activities. Beyond being aesthetically pleasing, Starfire is filled with extremely kind and friendly people, making it an overall delightful place to spend time. But what if this was where you spent the majority of your time whenever you weren’t at home? What if you passed through these bright halls and saw these same friendly faces multiple times a week for years? It wouldn’t matter how pleasant the building was or how nice the people were, there would be something that was missing.

As human beings we are social creatures that are in need of a sense of belonging, a regular chance to meet new people, and opportunities to form relationships- platonic and romantic. So as great as Starfire’s home base in Madisonville is, what would it mean for people if that was all that Starfire had to offer them. Sure, it would be safe and free of risk to gather people at the same place every day where there is a controlled environment, but where is the growth and opportunity in that? Where is the possibility for connection? This is where the fear of the unknown has to be pushed aside and the idea of shared places is put in its place.

Before I was introduced to Starfire I would not have thought twice about having people meet at Starfire every day. It sounds like a great idea to me, a pleasant space with kind people to help people with disabilities have a better life. Yet, the first thing I learned at Starfire is that a better life is not at 5030 Oaklawn Drive, Cincinnati, OH, it is anywhere but. By this I mean that there is no one place that people can be sent to have a better life, because a better life is all around us on front porches, at parks, in coffee shops, at the grocery store, in a yoga studio, in the work place, and so much more.

Every person who is a part of Starfire is a pioneer and a trailblazer who is trying to break the pattern of how people with disabilities are excluded by society. So, what is Starfire doing instead of meeting at the same place every day? They are asking themselves, “How can we take people to the community instead of just staying at Starfire?” People with and without disabilities are getting together and choosing different projects and interests to create their own shared places in the community. It is all about gathering at cafes, parks, and neighbor’s porches because these are the places that have the possibility for connection. However, connection and relationships are not just found because a person is brought to a coffee shop, there is so much more to it. It takes showing up, and not just once, but continuously, being open to meeting others, allowing for complete inclusion, and not being afraid to be hospitable and the welcomer.

As easy as it would be to create a community within the walls of Starfire on Oaklawn Drive, it would not be benefiting people who already have a hard enough time being isolated by society. “We have to find strength in the struggle,” said Tim part of Starfire’s staff. It has to be known that just because the intentions are there to do something great, it doesn’t mean it will happen easily. Shared places in the community take a lot of time and effort, but once they are created they can have a profound effect on all that are involved. I am about to experience my first Starfire shared place this evening as I attend Amanda’s “Sip N Sketch” at a coffee shop in Northside. I know that Amanda repeatedly worked long and hard on this project to create a place that involved her passion for drawing and art. Stay tuned for my next post which will be about my experience at Amanda’s “Sip N Sketch”.

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Contemporary Arts and Belonging to the Present

Belonging to the present moment is one of the challenges of this work. Goals are important, just as learning from our past is, but it’s easy to get caught up in the past or the future and wind up getting nowhere. If we spend our time reminiscing, the pitfalls and mistakes will turn us inward. Wondering about the future worst-case scenario, and nothing we do will seem like it’s enough. That’s why our faith and our efforts are best used when they are locked into the present moment. Gradually, the coffee we had with a neighbor, the class we joined at a dance studio, the idea we presented to the art museum, one-by-one collect like tiny pixels until every moment adds up and stepping back, a beautiful story of “the good life” emerges.

dougReginaDoug and Regina from the Contemporary Arts Center,
taking a break from his role as a museum guide.

May 5, 2016 – 2:30pm
Contemporary Art Center

Cincinnati, OH

On this day I find Doug by the welcome desk. With his brilliant grin and sarcastic eyes, he is making small talk with the ladies behind the desk.

“Hey! Long-time no see,” I chirp.

His wheelchair clicks into gear and I’m led through the employee elevator and hallways, into the underbelly of the CAC. Holding still among the crisp white walls and soft lights, we pass by sculptures made of string and exhibitions with culturally disruptive names like “Chasing the Whale and Other Endless Pursuits.”

Doug lives a few blocks north from here, in a nice apartment in Over-the-Rhine where up-and-coming young professionals are flocking. Up and comers like Doug. Except until this day, I have only seen Doug in a setting where his wheelchair and speech device are one among a swath of other disability-related imagery, in a day program with other people with developmental disabilities. Back then, Doug was a disabled young man going to a place that fit with his disability. But on this day, Doug is a lover of art, a man with insights and humor, and a camera operator who is giving me access to the “employee-only” corridors of the art center. Today, he is surrounded by glass-enclosed artworks and cluttered cubicles and sculptures made of string. I still see his disability, but I also see Doug.

He debriefs quickly with his supervisor about the next film that he’ll be working on, and one of his co-workers attaches a tiny GoPro camera to Doug’s wheelchair. Things are moving fast and I realize I underestimated how much work he needs to get done while I’m there, and that I might actually be in the way. Ben, his staff from Starfire, walks with him through the exhibits directing the shot, and Doug follows cue. The GoPro and wheelchair combination is a perfect set up for recording art smoothly, in a way that helps the viewer arrive at the exhibit through Doug’s point of view. His vantage point is not just different; it’s instructive and useful.

Doug’s story is a success story. It’s also a long story of a billion baby steps. Whether we see the whole picture, or get close enough to examine the small bits that make it up, the end story isn’t that Doug fits in now with all of the other YP’s in his neighborhood, or that he has a job, or that he has somehow overcome the challenges related to his disability. It’s how this set of circumstances aligns with the opportunity for Doug to be accepted as a profound friend and colleague that resonates deep within all of us. It’s knowing that the greatest gift in all of us is love, and when that is reciprocated after being unrequited for so long, that makes belonging in the present moment not only more manageable, but an altogether joyful thing.

To view Doug and the Contemporary Art Center’s work together, check out their videos gallery tours here:


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Starfire’s Response to Disability Rights Ohio Class Action Lawsuit

March 31, 2016, a federal class-action lawsuit was filed by Disability Rights Ohio (DRO) advocates claiming that the state of Ohio is illegally segregating individuals with developmental disabilities. The purpose of the lawsuit is to increase choices for people with disabilities, particularly with regard to more options for people with disabilities to live, work, and socialize in the community.  You can read the full lawsuit here.

This lawsuit comes at the tail end of our journey out of segregated services.

In 2010, Starfire’s transformation from segregated services to integrated supports for people with developmental disabilities began.  Six years ago we gathered families, people with disabilities, board members, staff, and volunteers to build a new Strategic Plan together with the realization that Starfire’s previous model of focusing on social entertainment and fun only produced a temporary, unsustainable impact on people with disabilities’ experience of social isolation.

strategic plan (2)

Strategic Planning Night, 2010

Our change was intentional. We felt we had a moral obligation to shift away from segregated services and instead into focusing all of our work in supporting people with disabilities into growing in relationships with ordinary citizens, making choices, experiencing respect, making contributions, and sharing ordinary community places with other citizens.

It has been the right path for Starfire to take though it was not without difficulties.  We know that organizations, families, and people with disabilities embarking on this shift will face many of the same challenges we have overcome, and continue to wrestle with.  This journey is not without many tough conversations, difficult questions, and time.

And yet, it has led to our most worthwhile, and beautiful work to date.

We believe that the responsibility to change is not just on the service system, but also relies on caring people who are willing to build relationships with people with disabilities and families who are interested in being part of this social innovation.  Starfire believes the future of disability support belongs in the community.  We know that you cannot legislate love or force friendship.  That is why  we are devoted to supporting people with developmental disabilities in finding their place in community by working in a person-centered model, by partnering with families, ordinary people, and businesses who believe in our mission.

We are steadfast in continuing our work in light of this recent litigation and committed to including our friends, family members and neighbors with disabilities as the central focus of our work: one person at a time.

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For inclusion and hope (an invitation)

Expectations for Starfire’s first year of “collaboration projects” were high, though their design was simple enough: creative ideas built on shared passion – done in the spirit of inclusion. These projects were invented for people with developmental disabilities who belonged to our post-high school day program as a sort of capstone, or final benchmark before they moved on. Inclusion being our end goal, we knew not to base these projects on shared labels, like disability – but on a more commonly perceived denominator – shared passions. So whether it was cars, fashion,  local history, or gardening…. passion and inclusion were to be at the center of these projects – not Down Syndrome or Autism or Cerebral Palsy.

The goal of inclusion for these projects also meant that each was designed to cultivate a real, authentic life experience in the community. That is, people with and without disabilities meeting over common interests to collaborate. To find people willing to be part of this first year of projects, we had to put our asset-based community development training to the test. We knew from this training that our communities were not vapid, boring places to live but in fact rich, vibrant places that simply needed to be tapped for their resources.

“Every community, no matter its state, has possibility. Every community member, no matter who, has something to offer.”

Sure enough… Out of the woodwork came genealogists, screenwriters, bicycle commuters, and car enthusiasts… We plotted those people willing to share their passions on a digital map of Cincinnati and started to envision the future of our work, where inclusion was built one project at a time. Even more exciting was how different the invitation to ordinary citizens sounded. It wasn’t the same as asking volunteers to join congregated activities (activities involving a group of people with disabilities). There were no sign up sheets, no service hours, no coercion. The invitation felt personal, a no-brainer for most, even flattering to some. You want me to share my love of xyz??? People were gung-ho to do something productive that got them out of the house and networking with people who were like them. Not only that, but this passion-centered design of projects turned out to be a source of momentum, and people worked overtime to make their project a success. Ultimately this blood, sweat, and tears proved to be what was most beautiful about collaboration projects: the drive was relationships. And hope.

Out of this experience, the potential to form sustainable, authentic relationships grew. It was everything we hoped for, mostly, when we imagined an inclusive Cincinnati. And while we didn’t quite know it then, these first projects became our prototype for how we would design our work of inclusion moving forward.

This was all going on during my first year working at Starfire, and at some point I was told to pull out a camera. Someone had to document what was happening.  My sister’s mini dv camcorder in hand and a digital voice recorder for a microphone, I began to follow the story of inclusion unfolding all over the city. A stack of tapes soon filled the corner bookshelf by my desk. By the time graduation rolled around, I had enough film to create a 1-2 minute video for each project and these played the night of the ceremony. Among them was a play adaptation of a book, a written and photographed montage of stories across Cincinnati screen printed into a mural, a car show,  a musical production,  and a film festival on street cycling.  We hoped the people watching would not just clap and leave without realizing what we had over the last 6 months: that these projects somehow managed to get at the heart of what it means to truly be included. And they did so not by contriving “special” scenarios for people based on their label of disability, but by telling a bigger story than disability – a new story.

Today, my mini dv camcorder is a more impressive Canon with two lenses I’m still figuring out when to use, and a few real microphones have been added to the arsenal. “Graduation” night has morphed into one of Starfire’s biggest fundraising events and an entire night of storytelling through video. I now have over 80 of these 1-2 minute videos under my belt, and equalling almost as many are the collaboration projects that have been done over the past four years. Admittedly, this pressure to create 20 more videos every year puts me in a bit of a panic in the months before June. I want badly to get the story right. My dreams fill with sequences to the footage I’ve collected, the narrative writes in my head over breakfast. I doubt myself before I go into an interview, and I wonder how else I could have asked the question when I am done filming it. Editing turns days into night quickly, my eyes start seeing floaters and my shoulders ache. Sometimes it feels like I’m not equipped, like I don’t have the talent or the creativity or the finesse to pull it off another year. And this story is too important not to get right. Feels a lot like writers block.

Then I remember back to the first year, to a crammed room with Ronny and Jovan and Leah and Krista and Sarah and Brandon and JC and Jason and Candice all there. Projects aren’t even real yet, they are still an idea at that point. I am two months into my job. People with developmental disabilities from the day program gathered with staff to take turns sharing what their project idea was:

My project is ‘Cheeseburger Coke Parties,'”

Mine is a play adaptation of the book Waddie Welcome,”

My project is a film festival called ‘Bikes and Busses are Better than Cars‘…..”

Each announcement is followed by an absolute eruption of cheering. The kind of unadulterated cheering that is not for the sake of cheering itself, but is indeed the purest and only available reaction to feeling in the room. We were onto something, it was known even then. Before my own eyes, people were shedding their label of disability and owning a new story of strength and commonality through these projects. And courage poured out – right out, I tell you – of the center of people’s hearts as they got up and spoke. There was hope.

I found myself sobbing in Tim’s office afterward. It was the most beautiful moment I had ever been a part of, and I felt so new and unworthy and yet unquestionably welcomed and invited. That feeling – that’s Starfire.

So, dear reader, if you decide to show up this June at the 20th Century Theater – you may have the chance to hear this cheering once more. It comes at the end of everyone’s video. When that cheering hits you unawares (if it does the way it did me), look around at everyone who is part of this emerging story of inclusion in Cincinnati. And when you do, just know that like everyone else here this evening – you are also whole, worthy and invited. And this hope is for you, too.

See you there,




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A Journey for Purpose


This is a reflection from Katie, an intern who started a few months ago….Here are her first impressions of what it’s like to walk into a Starfire circle:

In 2011, during my senior year of high school, I was writing college essays trying to convince the colleges of my choice why they should admit me into their programs. I had spent the past four years preparing for college, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. It is fair to say that not many eighteen-year-olds know what they want. However, what I did know was that I had an empathy for human suffering. I felt driven to help people and during my junior year I went to Africa, this solidified my urge to help others because it was the most human anguish I had ever seen. So I wanted to help people, but how? I started by wanting to be a writer, then I started thinking I could major in International Relations, and finally I settled on the practicality of nursing. I was able to pinpoint mental health as my cause, because I realized every human has their own mental health to maintain. A mind needs managed regardless of whether an individual has a disability in the body or mind, is extremely impoverished and hungry, or if someone is a fairly happy citizen of Cincinnati, Ohio. I think of my parent’s divorce, a common thing to happen these days, something that causes damage to the mental health of many. My Dad naturally suffered some mental health damage, so he tried to get some talk therapy with a psychologist. Although he had health insurance, not a single kind of talk therapy was covered; a blatant disregard to mental health. This led me to want to become a psychiatric nurse, and that’s how I started my schooling. However, I was hit hard by the reality of anatomy, physiology, and chemistry. I had good intentions, but I wasn’t a scientist, I was a writer. It dawned on me that I wanted to be an advocate for those who were unable to maintain their mental health. I had a dream to change the healthcare system and shed light on how important everyone’s mental health is. I decided that I would get a degree in English, Psychology, and Communication so that I could write and speak to raise awareness.

On March 14, 2016, I walked into Starfire for the first time. I was there for a community building meeting where the Starfire organization meets to share progress and lack thereof. This allows for stale ideas to air out and new ideas to flow in. This meeting would allow me to get a glimpse of Starfire’s cause. I found myself at Starfire due to an internship opportunity to help share Starfire’s stories via my writing skills. Being any new person in an unknown situation I was nervous, but also excited for the opportunity. As I walked into the doors of Starfire everyone in the lobby erupted into friendly greetings. I felt as if I had opened a threshold of positive energy, and I knew instantly this was a good place to be. A girl who looked to be close to my age had been sitting in the lobby, and immediately jumped up to asked me where I was trying to go. I simply said the community building meeting, and she took me through the bright, clean halls of Starfire. She led me to an open room with big windows where many chairs were arranged in a wide circle. Only two other people had arrived and I praised myself for being early. Sure enough, before I knew it, the room was full. Everyone said hello and was so kind and welcoming. The beautiful part of the meeting was that it created community. Not just any community, but an unfortunately rare community, one of people with and without disabilities. A community where everyone took their turn speaking and sharing triumphs and hardships. Even if someone’s speech wasn’t as articulate as the next, everyone was still respected, listened to, and understood. Throughout history people who come across to be different than the societal norm in appearance, speech, behavior, etc. have been segregated. Conversely, Starfire wants to set the example for everyone that a community starts with a bond between two individuals no matter the amount of differences between them. Starfire is a trailblazing organization that is paving the way for a societal community that thrives off of our sameness instead of lowering our quality of life by dwelling on our differences.

During my journey in finding what I am supposed to do with my life I have been yearning for purpose. After going to Africa, one of the ways I learned to cope with my guilt for being born into such privilege was to recognize that if everyone was born into poverty then no one would be able to help. I could then grasp my purpose which was to use my blessings and strengths to aid those who had less. What I grasped from Starfire that day was the importance of looking within ourselves to find sameness with others. A community is built when we realize no one person is better or worse than another. We all have to make a choice to connect with another’s heart and soul through sharing joy, sorrow, pleasure, and pain. That is exactly what I want to do with my life, I want to help people find community and make connections. Every second of the meeting made realize I was in the exact right place and some will of the universe had led me to some remarkable people who are much farther along in the process of utilizing their strengths to help others than myself. I realized that the universe led me to the people I needed to learn from. Connecting with Starfire has already given me an invigorated sense of purpose and has affirmed all that I have been striving to accomplish. The people sitting around that circle with me have the same dream that one-day society will be a place where we see people for their hearts, minds, and souls.

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Holy Thursday


Last week, at our weekly roundtable conversation about our inclusion efforts, Amanda stood up and extended an invitation.  She and Bridget had been planning a “Sip & Sketch” and she wanted to make sure everyone knew about it.  They had designed it based off of Amanda’s love of art.  They wanted a regular place where anyone could show up and draw together, so they worked out a plan with a local cafe, and then began planning and inviting.

It was a beautiful moment, and the first time in the four years I’ve known Amanda that she stood up in front of a group to speak like this.  Bridget said they had to print up extra flyers as Amanda had handed out so many of the original batch.  This was obviously a big deal.

These projects are my favorite work at Starfire.  They help make Cincinnati more interesting, and, of course, include someone at the center who has lived most of their life on the outside.

But they always come with a great deal of risk.  Will anyone show up?  Will the people who say they care about us be there?  Will it even matter that we’ve spent all this time planning and inviting?

Our mentors always start meetings reminding us that “whoever shows up will be the ones who were meant to be here.”  It’s a nice way of hedging our bets in case no one else shows.  It’s a preventative protection against the rejection we are constantly absorbing with and on behalf of each other.

The first monthly “Sip & Sketch” was planned for a Thursday in March.  Holy Thursday, ironically, when the image of people breaking bread together is top of mind and we prepare ourselves to think about hope-lost and hope-found.

It was supposed to start at 6:30.

When Bridget and I arrived at 6:15, Amanda and her mother and sister were already there with coffees in hand, huddled around a small table in front of the cafe.

We ordered our own drinks and made our way to the back of the cafe.  It was crowded, with people on their laptops, working quietly on their own .  There was an open table of four, which was perfect for these four brave women:  Amanda, Beth, Andrea and Bridget.

But what if other people showed up, as we hoped?  There were only two small tables unoccupied.  I pulled one of them over to make room for six, expecting that at least two would show up…wouldn’t they?

In a moment of daring, I pulled over the second table, making room for eight.  It was a risk.  If those four extra seats remained empty, it would be another wound for Amanda and her mother and sister, who have had years of sitting, walking and being alone together.  And it would be rough on Bridget, who poured her heart into honoring Amanda’s love of art, birds and eclectic conversations by connecting her with others who share the same orbit.


The clock hit 6:45.  It was pouring down rain.  We were all thinking the same thing:  Surely people are caught in traffic, or waiting for the rain to let up.  Surely it won’t be just us here tonight.   Right?

I started making the excuses in my head:  rain, Easter weekend.  I began telling myself it was no big deal:  This is the first of a monthly gathering….Surely we’ll end up with a few more next month and a few more the month after that?… I started doing a mental analysis of how we could get more people here next time.  I even asked Amanda if she was open to having a featured artist each time, thinking “at least that means one person would show up.”  I saw a woman walk in who had a cup of coffee and looked our way with a smile.  She sat down by herself with nothing to do.  “Maybe she is looking for us,” I thought.  I gathered some dishes to take up, and intentionally walked by her to make the invitation.  “No thank you,” she said.  My hopes sank.

The clock hit 7:00.  Amanda began asking about people by name.

“Is Ursula coming?”

“Is Grey Coming?”

“Is Jen coming?”

Each time she asked, I winced.  I thought it might be time for me and our two sons to make our way over to their table.  At least the three of us joining them would fill up the table.  Maybe Amanda and her family and Bridget would forget that no one else had showed up if we filled the empty chairs.  And I reminded myself of those hollow words “whoever shows up will be the ones who were meant to be here.”  I guess it was just Amanda and her family and Bridget and our family meant to be here tonight.  I want to believe those words so much, and I tell others that same thing so they won’t feel rejected, should the worst happen.  But deep down, we know it hurts.

And we all knew the worst thing we feared about tonight was going to happen:  No one, despite our best efforts, was joining us.

And then….Jen walked down the hallway!

My heart leapt and I sighed.  Thank God for Jen!  We thought she might come.  She said she would.  And she did!

“Michaella is up front getting coffee,” Jen said as she gave us all hugs and sat down next to Amanda.

Michaella was here?  Awesome.  Thank you, Michaella!  That’s two!  OK, we’re good.  The day was saved.

Moments later, Grey walked in, apologizing for being late, and brightening up the room with her big beautiful smile.  Grey!  You are more amazing to us right now than you could ever imagine!  She pulled out her watercolors and started catching up with Amanda and getting to know Amanda’s family.

There was only one empty chair, and Grey arriving had already filled our wildest dreams for the evening.  These seven ladies all chatted and complimented each other’s art.

Who could ask for anything more?

And then Ursula walked in.  She even had a copy of her comic book for Amanda!  Sweet, thoughtful, wonderful Ursula.

What a big beautiful, full table of artists.


Bridget and I left around 8:30, and exhaled.  All of our hopes and fears and worries and doubts had left us mentally and emotionally exhausted.

But it was all OK.  We held that last image of them happily chatting and working away.

And Jen even texted Bridget a short while later that a patron had come over to the table and asked to be included in the next one!


These are the moments that keep us all going.  The risk for people like Amanda and her mom is a big one:  If you put yourself out there, what happens if no one shows?  Does that mean you’re “supposed to be” alone?  Do you eventually stop trying?

And if you’re Bridget, it might seem tempting to avoid the potential letdown by doing something that doesn’t require anyone but you and Amanda.  If the two of them go bowling or to a movie, there’s no hurt if no one else shows.

Avoiding rejection is a safe place in the short term. But it’s a lonely place.  I wonder if Jen and Grey and Ursula and Michaella know what it means that they showed up.  Sure, it’s nice, but do they have any clue how important it was that they chose to spend an evening drawing instead of getting home early on a rainy night?  Do they have any inkling of how beautiful their choice was?

The people who were supposed to be there showed up last night, even if it wasn’t on our timeline.   Holy Thursday, indeed.


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Loose Threads

sewing quote

quote displayed at Cincinnati Public Library’s Makerspace 

On our first day together, Andrea and I made a list of things she was interested in.  I knew a lot of these things about her having drawn for her PATH a few years back: fashion, kids, shopping, doing her nails, her family, her friends, music…Usher specifically.

The list continued and I thought out loud how we might be able to spend 3 hours a week together, meaningfully.  What projects might be interesting to think up together?  What could we explore?  Would she be interested in taking pictures of people in her neighborhood and maybe displaying them at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center?  Would she want to plan a kid’s fun day for the local Montessori center in the green-space by her house?  Did she want to volunteer somewhere every week?

What might we be able to do together that would add value to Andrea’s life with the few hours a week that we had?

Andrea mentioned that she liked the sewing class she had taken with a group at Starfire at SilkRoad Textiles, a local fabric and sewing shop. She had sewn a bag and a pillowcase with three other members and Bridget before the Flood as part of the day program.

With the mention of sewing, we shifted gears and talked about different types of sewing projects.  We Googled a few images of handmade purses similar to the bag she made, patterns for clothing items, embroidery and needlework, and then stumbled upon quilts.  Andrea’s smile spread across her face quickly.  I raised my eyebrow towards her and she nodded yes when I asked “Would you like to learn how to quilt with me?”  I told Andrea I loved the idea of sewing, but wasn’t very good, but was up for the challenge if she was.

I made a quick Facebook post on my timeline, “anyone know how to quilt and willing to meet up to chat about how to get started with two newbies?” I got a couple of suggestions – talk to this person’s mom, there’s shop on Madison Road that teaches it, wish I lived closer!, I’ll ask my friend… but no concrete YESes to meet up with us and point us in the right direction.

A few weeks went by and Andrea and I continued our exploration around art, sewing, creation.  Following loose threads, we visited Tara Heilman’s studio in Sharonville, checked out an art exhibit at 21C Museum, and went to Xavier University’s art department.  But we still had not found our in for quilting.

I posted on my neighborhood NextDoor asking the same question: “Would anyone be interested in meeting up and talking about quilting with me and a friend on a Friday morning?”

I got a deluge of responses from NextDoor.  A lot of suggestions to sign up for expensive classes we couldn’t afford – a couple hundred dollars for Saturday morning sessions at one place, and a few messages from neighbors in nearby neighborhoods who were willing to chat with us but at times or days we just couldn’t make.

And then, there was a response was from Mary Ann.

Mary Ann immediately said yes to talking to us about quilting and said it would be much easier if we just came to her house to chat. She explained via email she had dozens of handmade quilts and meeting in a coffee shop wouldn’t make much sense since she wasn’t going to lug them around.  We had to SEE what we might be getting into to really appreciate what we might be getting into.

On the following Friday morning, Andrea and I stopped by Kroger and picked up a Fall plant to bring to our host.  It was September and we arrived on her doorstep plant in hand, knocked on the door, and waiting, nervously.  Neither of us had met Mary Ann before.

She opened her door warmly and immediately invited us in to her adorable cottage-like townhouse.  After offering us coffee, water, snacks, she showed us the way to her sewing room.  Up the stairs of her home we found a small bedroom adorned in antique sewing notions, framed beach prints, and other whimsical décor hung on the walls.  A sewing machine, ironing board and a cutting table featured prominently in the tiny bedroom. Two windows overlooked her garden and the pristine streets of Mariemont below.

We talked while Mary Ann showed us pattern books, a few photos on her iPhone and quilt upon quilt of her work.  Andrea didn’t say much, often quiet among people she doesn’t know.  I asked questions for the both of us: how long did that quilt take?  Who taught you to sew?  What do you think about quilting classes to get started?  What kind of equipment might we need? What’s a good first project for two people who have a basic understanding of the sewing machine?

Ever a gracious host, Mary Ann answered our questions, told us stories about her learning to quilt by handsewing when she was a mother of two little ones.  She laughed, recalling the hours it took to piece each fabric square together during naptimes and after her kids had gone to bed.  “I use a machine now!  Hardly anyone handsews a quilt anymore.”  She told us about how she was teaching her granddaughters and read us a silly poem one wrote about wanting to be finished, finally finished!, with the quilt she was working on.

After our hour and a half together had passed, Andrea and I stood to thank Mary Ann for her time and sharing so much information with us.  Mary Ann nodded happily and stopped us.  “You know,” she said as we were about to walk downstairs towards the car, “I could teach you two how to make a quilt.  I have all the materials in these scrap baskets, we could make a scrap quilt.  If you want.”  Andrea smiled and nodded, clapping her hands together quietly and doing a little celebratory dance.

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the first square!

We made a plan: frequent Fridays until the quilts were complete.  For several Friday mornings we’d arrive on Mary Ann’s doorstep, climb the stairs to the sewing room, and piece together our creations with her guidance. I needed help keeping my stitches exactly even.  Andrea needed help cutting her pieces out, but over conversations with each other and the whir of the sewing machine it began to come together, the quilts, and a budding little friendship.

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Andrea begins to sew her squares together with Mary Ann’s steady hand guiding. 

Andrea completed her quilt in January while I was on maternity leave with Jori’s help and the knowledge of a Mary Ann in her home, one piece at a time, one Friday at a time, one stitch and square at a time.


Mary Ann and Andrea work on blocking the pieces together, deciding which colors look best next to each other.

While we could have taken an expensive class at a chic sewing studio, we took a risk and said yes to Mary Ann’s offer.  We followed the loose threads of finding someone who might have the gift we were looking for, and who might be willing to share it with us, someone who might be willing to pick up a thread and add to our story.


Watch Andrea, Jori, and Mary Ann in our Video Blog and see the finished quilt. Her story begins at minute 1:19.

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“Motherhood Changes You”

“I’d be curious to see what you’re doing in a few years.”

There was a pause and a sort of knowing glance in my direction.  I sat in the passenger seat 24 weeks pregnant with baby #1. “Motherhood changes you,” he said.

I took offense to this, felt my face flush with annoyance, stuttered something unintelligible, and immediately began collecting facts for my case against this person.  This person who assumed I’d be less capable in my work once I became a mother, the tone implied (or the tone I perceived) was that I’d be less dedicated to my career once I saw how cute onesies could be on tiny bellies.  It felt as if this comment undermined my years of learning and work down to one assumption: that after a bit of motherhood, I’d probably take an easier route, a soft exit and leave the field altogether.  I’d abandon my career and stay home because babies, or perhaps work at a bank.

It’s been nearly 2 years since that sentence and it still bothers me.  Both from the perspective that I know I am a bad person for being such a hoarder of grudges, a habitual collector of cynical thoughts and from the perspective that perhaps I’ve interpreted the conversation wrong for the past 26 months.

So now, two years later, with two under two, and six weeks into maternity leave perhaps it’s the right time to reflect on that statement.

“Motherhood changes you.”

It’s made me softer in my approach with people.  I’ve actively worked on not immediately venting about a rude email from a service facilitator or a text message sent way too late from a parent.  I try to roll my eyes less, and breathe a bit more.  And while I’m softer with others, and I’m harder on myself, because motherhood changes you.  Every parent and especially mothers can relate to there not being enough time to get everything done.  (Whatever everything is…)  There isn’t enough time to accomplish this mystical everything, and there’s even less time to be bitter about emails or texts or a sentence that’s pestered you for two years…

I have two visible and adorable onesie-clad reminders at home at how fast time moves, how quickly life passes, and by bedtime, there’s just not enough time left over to do the godforsaken dishes let alone to be angry.  There is certainly zero energy left to stoke the fires of annoyance throughout the night, to keep vigil the grudges.

Scientifically, it’s true.  The maternal brain is changed in complex neurological ways.  It is chemically wired to respond to the needs of another.  “Those maternal feelings of overwhelming love, fierce protectiveness, and constant worry begin with reactions in the brain.” The brain becomes wired to love and care for another in ways you physically and neurologically were not able to before.  I am better at what I do because of this, because motherhood changes you.

I am so, so tired.  There are tiny hands smelling of peanut butter and blueberries and crayons and milk touching me all.the.time.  And cries and whimpers from one room while shouts of mama and giggles ricochet from another.

I am constantly multitasking while reminding myself, that for these few short weeks this is all I really need to accomplish.  Being present, being here.  Wiping little noses and butts endlessly and snuggling and cuddling, and absorbing on my never-clean-for-long shirt toddler tears of jealousy and newborn tears of frustration.

The fatigue of learning to be okay with just being with each other, day in and day out, and slowing down long enough to just be together with someone (even little someones) has made me better at my work.  I’m better at waiting while listening, and better at accepting some days are grand beautiful days and some days are “is this day over yet?” days.

I am working on being a better person in my life and not just a better staff in my work, because motherhood changes you.


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Notes from Starfire’s retreat

Letting go of guilt

Feelings you’ll not be enough.

Trust the time you give, however little…is a LOT.

Admit when you’re


“A bad day together – is already better than a great day alone.”

Trust in serendipity


It will come – not out of the perfect plan.

We have to look for the little steps.

There’s not one idea, ever. Not one way. Don’t go it alone.

“There are a lot of things that didn’t work out, there are a lot of things in her life that I will never fix, or change. But if nothing else, she has people in her life – and she’s happier.”

There’s an element of risk – inviting people – building community – can seem scary to us… we fear rejection, or messing up… but to the people  we’re inviting in, a lot of times it’s exciting, a new invitation.


“Vonceil’s a poet. A very powerful poet. She has met people who respect her art in the poetry community – people she can run into when we’re out. It’s still coming full-circle for me – what I’m learning from Vonceil and what she’s learning from me.”

Everything we’re doing is for the greater good. One day…. it just makes sense. You just never know how this thing that you’re doing will have a reason.

You can’t plan it any better.

It’s a journey. Trust the process.

“This job has led me to places I never thought I’d be. I’m sure Lauren wasn’t aware of how big this was going to get.”

As staff – we are significant in people’s lives. There are only so many people who get that call. Our work is to build authenticity. It seeps beyond the work/life boundary and becomes part of who we are. That’s a privilege.

Other citizens – then – can gauge what they can mean in people with disabilities’ lives.

There’s power in what we do. It’s important. It’s worth standing up for.




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Josh’s Story: Speed Dial


The first thing Josh does when he gets the newspaper is read the sports section. He sits down, pen and pad, and lists all the dates and times of upcoming games he’d like to watch. Being such a committed sports fan, Josh wanted to find a way to not just the watch games – but to give back. He decided to start volunteering at the Xavier University Cintas Center’s concession stands in order to help raise money for a local girls basketball team.

Three years into the gig, he can lead you through the back entrance of the gargantuan sports complex with a confidence that only seasoned VIP members exude. Navigating through the back elevator and hallways that are unseen to the typical ticket goer, everyone he passes greets Josh by name.

“People like Josh really make people want to come back to the Cintas Center,” said Matt Kelley, concession manager. “He really has a huge part in this whole operation.”


Once behind the concession stand, apron tied, the other volunteers who have worked with him for years will tell you that Josh is a well-known fixture. Come game time, fans will come by looking for Josh, or wait longer in line just so they can say hello. Starfire’s role in this has been to support Josh in building ties where he can become known for his strengths and commonalities.
“The biggest thing, is I’m just one relationship. I want it to be a lifetime of relationships for Josh and I to have and to share together,” Alyson Tsiominas said, Starfire staff who connected Josh to the Cintas Center role.

“In my phone, I’ve got Alyson on speed dial.” Josh said. “Building friendships is something good.”



Josh also volunteers weekly at a local food charity, attends regular yoga classes, and has held down a job at a local food chain for the past two years as a result of Starfire’s support and his family’s commitment to his personal journey.

Every year he and his family attend Starfire’s Final Four FlyAway, where Josh said it’s all of his favorite things in one night: basketball, beer, and food. We’d love it if you’d join him, and support this work to build lasting, meaningful connections into people with developmental disabilities’ lives.

Join: Buy your tickets to the Final Four FlyAway
Watch: Click to view Josh’s interview with Alyson at the Cintas Center
Build: Get in touch to find out how you can become part of Josh’s story


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