#OlmsteadAction: Starfire’s Integrated Employment Series (part 1 of 2)

Jobs are an important part of people’s lives. Yet statistics show that only 18% of people living with the label of developmental disability are employed in the US (Or said another way, 82% of people with developmental disabilities are not in the workforce). Starfire is working to change that picture. We are doing this by building people’s social connections. Landing a job often comes down to “who you know,” but the average person with developmental disabilities only has a network of 2 community relationships (unpaid, non-family, people without disabilities). At Starfire, 92% of the jobs attained with our support come directly from social connections, so we know our approach is working, even though it makes us a little different. We don’t invest people’s time and efforts on repetitive “job training readiness” such as mock interviews, resume building, or piecemeal work. Instead, we help people be “known” for their gifts and passions, so that when they apply for a job, their proven abilities are at the forefront of employer’s minds. Here are a few stories showcasing this approach.

Becky’s Story – SAF Holland

Becky SAF Holland Michelle Insta.png

“Before I was pretty much just sitting on the couch not doing much. I was just really cut off. It got a little more real like as time went on. And I was like, I want to get out there. A lot of people at Starfire helped me out with getting my job and they had a lot of confidence that I would be able to do it and they were like, ‘this is you, so you need to get out there and you know, show ’em.’.. Now I got stuff to do and I’m not sitting there bored, so I’m busy and that’s what I like to do.”

Megan’s Story – Mt. Washington Rec Center


Celebrating Megan’s 2nd year of integrated employment!

Molly’s Story – Neyra Industries, Inc.



“I love working with the team that I’m on. Everyone knows my name, everybody’s very friendly there.”

“It has been a pleasure having Molly here. She’s always so considerate and she always remembers little tidbits about people. She’s able to help get a lot of the administrative duties out of the way. So it’s helped free up a lot of their time to make our process in finances more efficient.” – Molly’s supervisor

Emily’s Story – Ensemble Theater


“I got the job when my friend Ben from Ensemble Theater called up Starfire and was like, ‘Where’s Emily at?’ He was worried about me. I’d been volunteering for 2 years hanging up posters for plays and taking tickets during the shows. But I wasn’t able to get a ride down there anymore, and my mom couldn’t drive me down there at night because she can’t see very well.

Before Ben called I was looking for a job for 2 months. I turned in a lot of applications but it’s a lot of ‘college people’ who are getting hired – instead of calling me back. But when Ben called he asked me if I wanted a job and said, ‘yes’! I wanted that job! And he said okay. I freaked out! I was very happy.  

This is my first job. The number one thing I’m looking forward to is working, and if I make some money I’ll get a laptop since we don’t have a computer at home. And I like being at a theater. I’ve been listening to musicals since I was in high school, that’s how I got into theater in the first place.

It makes me very, very happy that I know people down there.”

Mike’s Story – Contemporary Cabinetry East

Craig’s Story – Kinetic Vision


“I was at a workshop before. It was different since it was piece meal work. We had to do different tasks each day. I felt like I had to go really fast because you only get paid by the work you complete. One time at the workshop I got yelled at for going too fast. I didn’t know it, but they were low on product and they wanted to share the work around to make sure everyone got some. In my head I was just thinking, ‘I want to make some good spending cash so I’ve got to go fast.’

I quit the workshop when I got the job at Kinetic Vision. It felt really good. I like it more here because of the culture – and I get an hourly wage. I don’t have a staff always watching over my shoulder. Everybody’s nice. The boss doesn’t sound or act like bosses typically do. Every once in a while they have food trucks come and in the summer we grill out – us employees get to enjoy that. Employees will bring their kids down and other family members down.

They listen to what I say and they like the work I do. I’ve actually been showing them stuff. I feel like I’m valued.” 


Adam’s Story – Everything But The House

adam fehr 2.png

“My last job was only temporary. I wanted to find other employment. It was just overwhelming. And I didn’t have my weekends off. Here the job level is just perfect for me. I load trucks and have them sent out. It’s different. It’s a fast paced environment which is really cool.

My boss likes having me here. He’s extremely laid back, he likes what he’s been seeing out of me. He’s just a really cool person to be with.

The best part is being able to get back in the workforce and get some money in my pocket. And I’ve been meeting a lot of new people. I hope to be there for a long time. Stick around and get to know more people and help the company grow. Help it be a well-rounded business. When I get my paycheck I’m going to probably let it sit in the bank and earn a bunch of interest.”

Congratulations to Adam (pictured middle) – who recently landed a job at a place he loves that’s in his neighborhood.

Follow our series on employment and learn more about our approach to getting more people with developmental disabilities into the workforce where they can contribute!!



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Girls Day Out

It’s not often but when we do all get together, the women in my family are a close knit crew. Ages ranging from 2 to 65, something we can all enjoy together is a trip to the nail salon once a year.

The day was unfolding well beyond expected. My two-year old had fallen asleep in the car, and on the way in she miraculously stayed asleep in her stroller. All I could think was how I might actually soak my feet for more than 5 minutes before I’d need to herd her wiggly self around the various bottles of polish and women in foam slippers.


I saw her almost immediately. While 6 women in our party claimed our powered massage thrones for the next 30 minutes and dipped our feet into the bubbling LED lighted tubs, my eyes followed her. She was wearing an oversized pink t-shirt, and on it was the logo of a local day program for people with disabilities. Her hair was tousled just in the back, likely a pillow mark. A lanyard hung around her neck. This was different from my own childhood rebellion against femininity, those times I spent carefully trying to achieve what others called a “tom-boy” look. Her appearance instead seemed to be a forgotten chore, a part of her that was taken for granted. My curiosity for her piqued. I wondered what her story was. For the sake of the rest of this post, I’ll call her “Ann.”

My niece bounced from chair to chair as we moved on to the manicure station, the flower design now decorating her right big toe a topic of her own delight. I spotted Ann again, this time a few tables back from where I sat. Beside her,  a woman with upswept hair and neat clothes sat getting her nails done. Ann’s knees were turned toward this other woman with her hands resting in her lap. Waiting.

Ah-ha, I see. The blood inside of me began to boil. I looked around at my mom and sister, wondering if they too were seeing what I was seeing. They were looking over at my little one still asleep (still – a miracle!) and chatting about where to grab lunch next.

Carefully, I pressed my palms onto the stroller and walked over with wet nail polish to the drying station. I sat across from Ann – and the woman she was with. The dryer clicked on and the fan blew cold air onto my wet, blue fingernails and toes.

Ann waited.

The woman drying her nails looked aloof. Annoyed even. She was occupied with the time, but in a different way than Ann was. It was the look of someone on the clock, waiting for their shift to be over.

“Did you get your nails done?” I broke the silence, asking Ann.

“Yesterday,” she said. I looked down at her nails, their length unruly, brittle and chipped, but sure enough there was polish clumped and smeared onto them.

Ann’s hand lifted from her lap and lovingly, she reached over to sweep the other woman’s bangs away. The woman darted her eyes and stiffened, it was clear she wanted nothing more than to disassociate herself from this disabled woman she came with.

It was too much.

“What agency do you work for?” I asked the other woman in my kindest, most curious voice. I was nervous about tipping my hand, revealing that I knew without asking she was Ann’s caregiver and that she was on the job, but she was none the wiser:

“Care Options,” she said, turning to me with such polite responsiveness that I was taken aback. If she could be so kind to me, she wasn’t just having a bad day.

“Oh, I used to work there,” I responded calmly, though she was hitting a new a nerve. I knew that agency well and had wrestled with them many times in the past.

Engaging this woman had opened some valve and she began to talk for the first time since I had seen them. Ann put her head on the table and listened as we talked momentarily.

As they got up, I looked deeply into Ann’s eyes, “Have a nice weekend,” I said.

In my farewell, I hoped Ann could see I was her ally, hoped her caregiver would realize I was disgusted with the way she treated her, wishing I knew how to be less reliant on innuendos and body language and could just come out and express my thoughts directly.

I had to sit outside. I explained to my mom the scenario that had just unfolded in-parallel to our girls day out, and she looked aghast. She hadn’t seen any of it. Ann’s unkempt appearances as she sat idly by her caregiver who was getting primped on the job were beyond glaring to me.

But even in a salon, where self-care and women bonding are the unmistaken norm, most people didn’t notice. Ann was the invisible outsider.

Why couldn’t they have just gotten their nails done together? 

How could anyone feel justified getting paid to treat the person they are supposed to be working for so poorly?

My daughter woke up to the sound of my voice, louder and more clipped than usual.

I wanted to call “Care Options” and report this behavior, make a fuss. I am still friends with one of their “consumers” whom I used to be a caregiver for, and over the years she and her family have come a long way to ensure she was getting proper supports. I asked myself if it was worth it or would it be more harmful to my friend if I made a big ordeal out of it. I hadn’t even gotten their names, so maybe they would write me off anyway.

Plus, I know this agency. I’ve had their training first-hand, I was a recipient of it once. They train staff to be documenters of behaviors and meds, to prioritize order and safety. The rest is passing time until your shift is over. People’s lives become equivalent to hours on a paycheck. I saw this thought pattern more than once when I was their employee.

Was calling to complain really going to change the way they train their caregivers to think?

It’s unusual for an agency to do that, to break mindsets — the way we do at Starfire. That’s one of the reasons I’ve poured myself into the work here for the past 5 years. Our end game is a shift in culture, we don’t stop with just keeping people safe and fed. While it can mean some of that, at Starfire we know it goes way, way beyond the basics of simply keeping people breathing.

What I also don’t mean is that we take on the insurmountable task of “fixing” people to be less disabled, like so many agencies try through behavior plans and “life skills” training. We know that this way of offering support people often turns into a trap, where people with disabilities are cordoned off into the same programs with only other people with disabilities into an endless cycle of isolation and repetition. There they become known for their disability, and their assets are lost.

At Starfire we aren’t paid to control or manage people with disabilities. Our job is to tackle the root-cause at hand that we understand to be a widespread belief system that leaves people with disabilities out and leads to exclusionary or segregated models in our communities.

So you see, it is other’s mindsets that leave people out of ordinary life, not their disability.

So we attend to image in a way that signals to others that this person, who might be seen for their disability at first, is also cared for and valued. We ask that staff and the person they support are doing things together (like getting their nails done), because it models for others what it looks like to include someone with disabilities in a relationship. We try not to be an end for the person we are working with, but rather act as a bridge to more relationships, more opportunities beyond what our paid role can do. So we discover pockets of opportunities where people can contribute in the community.

We do more than just keep people alive. We make space for them to be loved and cherished.

This is what I want every agency and paid support person to want for Ann, but we’re not there yet. Still it burns inside to see it happen, and breaks my heart to tell the story when it does.

What more should I have done? What more could I have done? I’ll continue to ask how I could have done more. Perhaps my bravest step is writing this blog post. Maybe you’ll help by sharing it. I’d love to read your comments.

More from Cincibility: 

A Good Staff: part 1 

Manicures aren’t quite so simple

The Five Valued Experiences

Case Files & Memories

Riding the White Horse


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Rachel’s Story – Movers, Shakers, and Motivators (VIDEO)

Rachel joined a training group for runners and walkers and completed her first 5k.

Carol: How do you feel Rach?

Rachel: I feel fine

Carol: We did it didn’t we? Lots of training for that huh?

Rachel: Yeah

Carol: Did you like the walk club?

Rachel: Yeah

Carol: Nice people in it, huh?

Rachel: Yeah

Carol: We enjoyed making new friends and meeting some people from the community.

Peter: Rachel loves to walk, this was a really good activity for her.

Kayla: Rachel, I mean she was pushing it every single time. I guess you could call her a leader because I mean she was really consistent. And consistency in this program is very important because if someone sees you being consistent, they’ll do the same thing.

Courtney:Before this walking group….

Phil: We just sat on the couch and …

Courtney: And sat in bed and didn’t get up in the morning (laughing)

Phil:We always thought about exercising but we’d just always make excuses. Now we have to get out.

Courtney: We were inspired by Rachel who brought us together as a training group. She was there at every one of the training groups. She inspired me I know to be there.

Phil: We didn’t want to let the group down.

Courtney: We all seemed like we became instant best friends (laughter). I was just really, it was fun.

Peter: Do you want to do another one?

Rachel: No.

Peter: Oh come on Rachel (laughter)

Carol: We’ll do another one just not today, okay?

Rachel: Okay.


STARFIRE IS: a visionary organization working to build better lives for people in Cincinnati, Ohio. We connect people with developmental disabilities to relationships and uncovers a person’s talents and passions – so they can thrive in their communities alongside their neighbors.









5030 Oaklawn Dr.
Cincinnati, OH 45227



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In Our Lives, At Our Dinner Table

Since 1993, Starfire has been an example of inclusion in Cincinnati. Though the way in which we do our work has evolved over the past 23 years, we have remained steadfast in our passion and philosophy of our work.  That is we know that life is more interesting, more beautiful and our communities more complete when we include our friends, neighbors, and family members with disabilities.  Starfire believes that people with disabilities not only deserve a place in our communities, in our lives, and at our dinner tables, but in fact have beautiful gifts to share once invited.

This has been my life’s work over the past 8 years… I have had the privilege to see and be a part of the impact of what happens when people turn off their TVs and turn to each other, when the spark of friendship is ignited through a common interest and when the seeds of love and understanding are planted as people come to belong to each other over time. Our work is in stark contrast to what we see in the world every day: violence, fear, divisive rhetoric, hatred, loneliness, and broken communities.

We are told to fear our neighbors, to be suspicious of those different than us, and to live anonymously among our own kind. Instead this event, and these stories define who we are.

Starfire, and this year of community building projects show us a different way.  A new story: That changing the world can be as simple, as radical, and as revolutionary as quilting with a neighbor like Andrea and MaryAnn, becoming a valued community member like Telly, or planning a bicycling fundraiser like Robbie and Burke.

We know that we cannot force friendship or legislate love but because sponsors and donors invest in our work, because families believe in this work, and because community members and ordinary citizens do this work with us we are changing the very world we live in.  And at it’s a core this is a pretty ordinary way to live.  But the impact on our communities, on our lives, and in the lives of people with disabilities is having an extraordinarily beautiful effect.

Through our stories we see people coming together sharing places, people growing in relationships, people making contributions and choices, and people stepping into valued roles and experiencing respect, one person at a time, one small extraordinary project at a time.

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Molly’s Story: A Full Life (VIDEO)

Molly embarks on the journey toward a full life, filled with relationships, valued roles in the community, and passion. STORY SOIREE 2016 (Starfire Story) by Katie Bachmeyer

Allie: Why is it important for you to meet new people?

Molly: Because I think it’s important to build friendship.

Katie: What were you doing before all of this? Was your life busy do you think?

Molly: My life wasn’t busy at all.


Katie: Now it is?

Molly: Yes.

(fade out/in)

Brieanne: We’ve been together for so long I feel like we’re an old couple! Maybe we’re boring now.

Molly: (laughs) No we’re not!

Brieanne: We don’t have anything exciting to say!

Molly: My community would be totally different without meeting Brieanne and her friends I know.

Brieanne: I guess, you’ve just sort of become a part of my friend network and I… It just seems organic and natural if someone asks like, “Hey do you want to do a get together?”I think of all my friends to invite. We’re doing a barbeque, who should I invite? And I just go down my list of friends and you’re — just on that list. With or without Starfire, I mean you’re always going to be my neighbor and my friend.

Molly: Yep

Brieanne: But we’ve had challenging parts. I mean there some parts that like, probably get on each other’s nerves.

Molly: Right

Brieanne: I’m always late for everything.

Molly: Which I understand now! I’m like uh-oh

Brieanne: And the only time I was early, you were surprised!

(fade in/out)

Molly: Starfire has helped me make friends. If I were still in the day program and I didn’t have like jobs or volunteering I would not know that many people. I’ve been on Bark for Life committee for four years. I love planning the event and meeting the other community members (American Cancer Society fundraising event). And I also volunteer in Leanne’s room in the preschool department.

Leanne: Being in a preschool classroom it’s kind of a fly by the seat of your pants environment. So it’s nice that she can kind of just jump in and help out wherever. And the kids are really receptive to her and enjoy having her around.

Molly: And I also work at Neyra. I love working with the team that I’m on. This is the office area where I put my stuff. Everyone knows my name, everybody’s very friendly there.

Lindsay: It has been a pleasure having Molly here. She’s always so considerate and she always remembers little tidbits about people. She’s able to help get a lot of the administrative duties out of the way. So it’s helped free up a lot of their time to make our process in finances more efficient.

Molly: And I volunteer at May We Help with my friend slash neighbor Terry who’s Executive Director.

Terry: Molly’s got a great personality – she’s just a joyous and passionate person and when I pull up in my driveway

Molly: I always make sure I say “hi” to you guys too.

Terry: Absolutely, that’s what I was going to say. It brings a smile to my face because I know she’s going to say “hi.” It’s just always great to have people like that in your life.

Molly: I think that Terry is one of my best friends because I can tell him stuff.

Terry: She just always brings that, you know always brings that joyous and passionate attitude with her whoever she goes, so it certainly has an impact on my life.

Molly: I don’t know who I would talk to about Pete Rose and Sparky Anderson.

Terry: Me too. I still haven’t showed you those pictures have I?

Molly: No…Hold on I might come over tonight because I’ve got more books to show you…

(fade out)

…Molly continues to build a full life – one relationship at a time.



STARFIRE IS: a visionary organization working to build better lives for people in Cincinnati, Ohio. We connect people with developmental disabilities to relationships and uncovers a person’s talents and passions – so they can thrive in their communities alongside their neighbors.









5030 Oaklawn Dr.
Cincinnati, OH 45227




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3 Ways to Change Someone’s Life

Have you ever stopped to find out what drives the way you present yourself?
Check out these pretty typical Instagram profiles to see what I’m getting at-

  • @JAlanPipes “Maker of the finest luxury smoking pipes”
  • @bjmacwoodwork “Father, Husband, lifelong woodworker. Sharing knowledge makes the world a better place.”
  • @gushmann “Director & amp; Filmmaker”
  • @andreaswiig “Professional Snowboarder. 3x X Games gold Medalist. Pow lover”
  • @seelyseeclimb “Climber, Artist, Writer, Team Five Ten, Risen from the wheelchair, currently in Yosemite”
  • @jacklenniedesigner “Designer, Warner Brothers, Tinker, SSCO, Edinburgh – London”
  • @dchapdelaine “Minster / Adoption / Foster Care / Music / Coffee / Check out the youtube channel”

This is a pretty quick and random group of people, but see if you can pick up on the things that they all have in common?  It’s hard to pin at first because we all subconsciously do this.  Here is the thread –

To the best of our own individual ability we all “put our best foot forward” and try our hardest to display only our characteristics that are most valuable to the people we value the most.

This is pretty intuitive when you say it out loud.  The innate hunger driving this constant instinctual adjusting and tending to ourselves is from our crave for “The Good Things of Life”.  You know…Approval, Acceptance, “to be fully known and fully loved” kind of thing, and naturally everything that makes that good life possible: family, friends, attention, opportunities to grow, money of course, and on and on.

Think about how people introduce themselves- “I’ve worked there for [X] years”, “We are so proud of how our kids turned out”, “The design team I am on was just selected for the new project”, “Our neighborhood has this party every year”, “You have to hear what my sister has been up to..”.

Statements like this reveal that these people have socially valuable roles like Employee, Husband, Father, Wife, Mother, Designer, Team Member, Industry Leader, Culture Maker, and Beloved Neighbor.  The way we choose to convey who we are to others might as well read: “people look up to me”, “I am valuable and interesting”, “impressive, right?

But what you don’t see, and what is equally true, could be something like: “I have no idea what I’m actually doing with my life 90% of the time”, “My retail-therapy habit is trying to kill me”, “The reason I am not comfortable about marriage or kids is because I can’t even begin to process what happened to me growing up”.

We all subconsciously regulate the not-so-attractive traits about ourselves that we can’t change, and simultaneously project our best.  Because in reality, every single person on earth, from the leader of a first world country to a person trapped in sex trafficking, EVERYONE, has within themselves untapped strengths and indelible weaknesses.

Now it’s easy to solely blame bad luck here about whether a person has “the good things in life” or not, but don’t be so quickly tempted to scapegoat the whole picture.

Whether a person gains or loses social value after they are born depends far more than we comprehend on what others expect of that person, and what that person expects of themselves, and on Newton’s First Law…


Expectations from others and about ourselves are cyclical and self-fulfilling, whether for good or bad.  They are like Snowballs, on a Mountain, in Space (which would make them ice-balls, but stay with me).  Whatever direction it is pushed at first, uphill or downhill, is the direction it will continue and build mass in.  Unless of course, the snowball is acted upon by an outside force…
Since that logic is pretty much irrefutable (thanks Newton), it would then seem really important to receive and believe valuable expectations about oneself from the get-go, over negative ones, in order live up to and retain all the countless, valuable and powerful identities we desire… “The Good Things of Life”

Here’s is an example of how negative expectations can tragically strip a person’s social value-

  • Let’s say a grown woman with a fit mind and body cannot communicate in a typical way but has an interest in gardening.  She is then granted support from human services and they determine she needs so much help communicating that someone should be staffed to be with her 12 hours a day.  Her staff person, expecting that the woman would not be able to understand the nuances of gardening, decides it would be best to avoid failure by not going to the garden often and by disclaiming to the members of the garden that the woman should not be given real gardening tasks.

What would those lowered expectations do?
The woman will likely be frustrated, even aggressive at this decision.  She is then assumed to be a danger to herself and now requires full time staff and is further restricted from the community.  Which in turn would not only call out more aggressive behavior in her, but she too would begin to believe that she should be restricted from the community – Fulfilling the negative expectations to everyone that she is not able to garden, should not go out often, and is indeed a danger to herself and others.

Here’s the corollary example of how positive expectations can help someone gain valued roles instead:

  • Let’s say this same woman is expected to be active in the community by her staff person instead.  They explore their neighborhood and meet people at the community garden.  She develops a familiarity and competency working with the other gardeners and is expected to contribute and pull her weight because of her new found skill.

What would those raised expectations do?
Now of course she is driven to live up to those expectations and by the end of the growing season she has gained the respect of the other members in her neighborhood garden and viewed as an equal there – Fulfilling the positive expectations that she is caring, competent, and needed in her neighborhood.


So what is the reason it is assumed (expected) that a person with an intellectual or physical impairment couldn’t, or even shouldn’t gain socially valued roles?  Roles like Employee, Husband, Father, Wife, Mother, Designer, Team Member, Industry Leader, Culture Maker, and Beloved Neighbor?  Let’s lean on the father of deductive reasoning (thanks Aristotle) to find out-

  • IF every single person on earth has within themselves untapped strengths and indelible weaknesses…
  • AND if to the best of our ability we all regulate those indelible weaknesses we can’t change, and simultaneously project our best…
  • AND since whether a person gains or loses social value depends largely on what others expect of that person, and what that person expects of themselves…
  • THEN the reason people who are impaired are assumed to not go anywhere, or to be in fact mere adult children, or liabilities, or just “holy innocent gifts”, or identified solely by their diagnosis, or to be distanced from “more important” people, or even to be justly euthanized…

…The reason may be that impairments can make it impossible to regulate ones not-so-attractive traits, and even impossible to project your best to others.

Is this a valid reason to expect the worst of and for someone?  Or is it actually the most important reason to expect the best of and for someone instead?

Just as humans universally unconsciously portray their best, people with impairments are universally subconsciously devalued, to the point that when a person with an impairment gains a valued role, such as a high school sports coach for example, it is considered a rare phenomenon or even a social miracle.

So what can you do to confront such a universally accepted negative expectation for people with impairments?
What could the most meaningful and effective response be to this?
How could you actually change someone’s life knowing this?

  1. Be aware of the negative expectations and ways a person is presented that are limiting their life

  2. Be in a person’s life and get to know someone beyond what impairs them

  3. Believe and expect in a radically new or even best self for a person and work together strategically towards that end

  4. (Bonus) Be encouraged to know that the belief and support of even just one person can be enough to stem off the torrential undercurrent of lowered expectations, and certainly enough to change a person’s life.

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How it came to be decided that bonsai might be a pursuit is a longer story.  But, we found ourselves one morning Googling bonsai, and given Becky’s previous work with fairy gardens and love of plant life in the miniature, it seemed like a good next step.

Community building work is often slow, long haul work.  We don’t fully recognize our efforts until after some time when the long view comes into focus.  There’s research, trial and error, meeting new people whom we hope will become friends or advocates, and there are small successes, some failures, and some days suspended in what’s next apprehension.

Every once in awhile though, community building is fast, go now work, and those are the days I love.  After series of Facebook messages, an email and some texts the week before, and we found ourselves on Wednesday afternoon waiting to meet Lemual outside of the Krohn Conservatory.  We agreed to meet at 12:30, to walk and talk together while checking out the bonsai display there.  Being Butterfly Show season in Cincinnati, I paid admission for the three of us, and let Lemual lead the way, observing both his and Becky’s fascination for the ingenuity of the landscaping outside, the variations of cacti and the dry air of the greenhouse, the misty coolness and the vibrant colors of the orchid room.


Bougainvillea bonsai

Eventually we meandered into the bonsai room.  Lemual’s thoughts on gardening and cultivating trailed like the vines of the bougainvillea: green sprouty fingers folding into colorful flowers, his words tumbling from one idea to the next beautiful reflection and thought on plants and growing.

He thumbed through his Instagram feeds showing us potters who specialize in bonsai containers, boutique bonsai stores in Florida, pictures of pretty plants he’d seen and snapped just because of their colors or something interesting about the way they looked.


Lemual and Becky appreciate a bonsai

The purpose of bonsai, we learned was two-fold: beauty and appreciation of beauty for the viewer of the bonsai, and an exercise in effort, patience, and creative design by the grower. To start, one only needs a bit of material, a shoot, a seed, a small tree or shrub, and lots of patience over time.

It reminded me of community building work. To start, one only needs a bit of source material, an idea, a seedling if you will, a passion or interest. From there, the work continues over time, designing, pruning, growing.


We paused in front of the Texas Ebony. The tag read In Training Since 2008. I asked Lemual what “in training” meant and he explained that the bonsai is never finished. Because it is a living, growing thing, all trees are always in training, making small adjustments, cuts, and crafting a design over its lifetime.

Much like the Texas Ebony, I’ve also been in training since 2008 with much more growing, pruning, patience, and designing to do. Bonsai, like community building, is never a finished piece of work. Even though Becky is employed part-time as a data clerk at SAF-Holland, volunteers at GreenAcres once a week with the garden education team (logging the most volunteer hours of any volunteer in 2015), is on the Dirt Crew at the Civic Garden Center, is getting connected to Hamilton County Parks invasive removal species team, is a reoccurring guest (and potential future member) of the Monfort Heights / White Oak Ladies Garden Club, and considering joining the Greater Cincinnati Bonsai Society, the work of community building is never done.

Because we are living, growing things, we are always in training, making small adjustments, cuts, and crafting our design over our lifetime.


Becky, AJ and Lauren on the Winton Woods Oak Trail, removing invasive garlic mustard from the trails


becky garden club

Becky and the Monfort Heights / White Oak Ladies Garden Club at Glenwood Gardens

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The right thing, and the hardest thing

 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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Doug’s Story: Navigating the Arts

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.

A Moment:

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. Through the use of his wheelchair and a GoPro camera, he has landed a job at a local art museum and become an integral part of their marketing and communications team. His videos are played on the Contemporary Art Center’s website and Vimeo, and have become an asset for the organization.

This is also a long story – of a billion steps that were taken leading up to this day, when I am standing by Doug getting swept up in his work. And that is my take away. This moment is one of many – and as each stacks on the other, they will continue to build and deepen the relationships and valuable contributions Doug is making.

As we head back toward the editing suite where Doug uploads his footage for the editor to work with, I hear the bantering back and forth of co-workers who truly love to work with one another.  Seeing this, I understand that above all else in common, greatest gift we share in all of us is love. When that gift is both accepted and reciprocated, it makes belonging to 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: https://vimeo.com/contemporaryartscenter/videos


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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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