A Family Story

We don’t say it enough, but without families, our work at Starfire would not be possible. Every connection made in the community, every new relationship formed, or job attained, families are the ones behind-the-scenes keeping those threads of connection together. In many ways, Starfire’s story is the story of every family we support.



Families like Joy and Rosie Lawrence-Slater, who believe that every person has an important role in the community. The mother and daughter duo recently shared their hopes and dreams for Rosie’s life when NPR’s StoryCorps came to Cincinnati.

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We understand families are stretched thin. So when 81% of families support our mission by… providing transportation to community events, or following up with new friends to keep the relationship going, or coming to us with ideas for a person’s future…we are in awe. That type of support isn’t what’s typically asked of families from support agencies like Starfire, and we know it’s not the easy way. Because of this, it’s the support we receive from families, more than almost everything else, that tells us our work is worth working for. 


This story is part of our Story Series, “The Spark.” Subscribe and get this series in your inbox every week! 

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“A Plan that Came True”

A few weeks back, Starfire received an email that reminded us of the importance of making room for “the spark” to happen. It was written by a mother, whose son Kyle used to attend our day program before it closed. Kyle would be receiving his Black Belt in Gumdo (sword fighting) that Saturday, and they wanted to share the news.

His mother went on to write that without the initial connection that Starfire made seven years ago – between Kyle and Paul Korchak (Founder of the Cincinnati Taekwondo Center) – his dream of attaining a Black Belt might never have been realized.

“I like my martial arts training and I look forward to going to class each week. Each skill is hard at first, but it gets easier the more I practice. My classmates have helped me learn so many moves and they have been great teachers. Ms. Knarr is nice and encourages me to do more. I enjoy most of the things that I have learned. I like to be a fighter with good moves and kicks. I really like to combine my fighting skills to make special powerful moves which include; a power attack, flashing punch, and double kick. I don’t like sparring as much because I am afraid someone will get hurt, but I like to work with my swords, because it makes me strong and builds muscles.”



As part of Starfire’s shift in those days toward more person-centered, community-based work – we saw that Kyle’s love of martial arts might be a natural and meaningful entryway into community life, and spring him out of our day program. So, our staff invited Master Korchak to attend a PATH (planning session) that would focus on Kyle’s hopes and dreams around the martial arts. Asks to the community in those days were something new, and often felt awkward. Will he come? Will he understand how important this could be to Kyle’s life? Will he be confused and ask questions I’m not sure how to answer? Going about the ask itself was a practice in faith. But to our delight, Master Korchak accepted.

And then it happened. At the PATH, Master Korchak extended the invitation for Kyle to come check out his class, and Kyle was obviously excited. This was the best outcome anyone could have hoped for. Without anyway of knowing in advance that it would happen, there at the PATH we saw a “spark.”

“During Kyle’s childhood he participated in a number of different sports: Swimming, soccer, and baseball, but all of them were segregated team sports and none of them has provided Kyle with the sense of joy and accomplishment that he feels with his Gumdo training. The bar is always being raised, there is variety, plenty to learn, and he can learn at his own pace.”

-Jenny, Kyle’s mother

Here’s Kyle during his Black Belt ceremony.


It did not take long before it was clear Kyle’s interest in Taekwondo was becoming a passion.  Kyle was hooked, and it was exciting to see the joy his classes gave him! Kyle’s love for Gumdo and the martial arts has been transformational! Kyle has developed a passion for the martial arts, which has improved his self-confidence, given him purpose, to be the best warrior he can be, and has allowed him to grow in a community that accepts his differences. We thank everyone who has help make his PATH, a plan that came true.

– Jenny

Receiving an email like this one is a part of our story we don’t always get to tell. We often make room for “sparks” to happen, and they don’t always ignite. And even sometimes when the do ignite, we don’t see the whole story unfold because people like Kyle, his family, and Master Korchak have figured out a way to carry on that spark for years on their own- outside of Starfire’s or some other service’s support.

Stories like these take a measure of serendipity and courage to shift course and try something different. At first the different path feels riskier – and less sure-footed than the typical “disability story” would offer. It takes guts to shift perspectives from believing who someone is based on their label of disability, and instead build a new story of who they might become: a Black Belt, a classmate, a community member, a friend.

Kyle Vorhees.jpg

“I am very happy to receive my Black Belt and I will continue to practice what I have learned so that I can continue to learn more forms and skills.


And like martial arts, inclusion takes practice. It starts by making that first invite to the community, building a plan, then sticking with it year after year. Then, even when we’ve reached some ultimate goal – we continue going back to the fundamentals, inviting and building, knowing that with discipline and heart the rewards will pay out over a lifetime.


This story is part of our Story Series, “The Spark.” Subscribe and get this series in your inbox every week! 

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“The Spark” – Series 02

This Series’ theme is: The Spark. 

Close your eyes and think of a time you felt a “spark” with someone or something. Was it the first time you held a microphone? The time you met your best friend? Why is this idea of a “spark” important to our work in the community around people with disabilities?

Listen below to hear Tim Vogt’s 3-question interview on this series’ theme with our Researcher Storyteller, Katie Bachmeyer.



Katie: So, tell me about a time you saw a spark at Starfire.

Tim: There was a young man that was coming here, Kyle, and he would walk around our day program, and he would walk in a very different way. He would turn his toes inward and make these sideways steps, and he would kind of walk around corners very intentionally. And, I remember, at the time we had a few staff who thought this was a really big problem – that he was acting strangely or it wasn’t appropriate. One staff, a guy named Jon, had noticed that this young man had kind of an interest in martial arts, in ninja-kind of stories. And Jon actually noticed that what Kyle was doing was not strange or weird, it was actually a form of martial arts.

So, the first spark was the noticing of that staff, saying, “Huh? I wonder if this isn’t just weird or this isn’t just strange or this isn’t just a behavior problem. What if this is an intentional clue into who this person really is? Maybe this is one form of communication of who they think they are and who they were born to be.” As a result, another staff started to invite in a local martial arts master to teach for the reason of cultivating this interest that was noticed with this young man. So, Kyle gets an opportunity now, because of these two staff, to be in the presence of somebody who could be a mentor, or a sensei if you will, to his unfolding or emerging identity around the martial arts.

A few months later, Kyle is having a planning session.  His family is coming and our staff are gonna be there. We’re thinking about who is Kyle. And, Bridget says, “We should be inviting Master Korchak, the martial artist that had been teaching the class. He should come and help us think about Kyle’s future.” So again, here’s the next spark, the idea that Master Korchak is not only here to teach about martial arts but he might come to a meeting to help us all imagine what Kyle’s future could look like. And he carries a really interesting part of it, which is this interest, a passion that Kyle has for martial arts. And he knows a lot about that, he’s dedicated his whole life and career to this. So, he’d be a logical person to invite in.

So, in the planning session, they started talking about martial arts and when it came up that Kyle was interested. And the whole circle, everybody in the room – the family and our staff kind of came up with the idea that there’s some Special Olympics classes they could explore around the martial arts and that’s a legitimate thing for people to think of. However, Master Korchak said, “I think he could do my class. I do it every Monday and I think he could come. He’s already good enough to be a part of that. It’s a self-directed journey for everyone that’s in the class, and Kyle’s got enough of an interest and enough of capabilities to participate.”

So, right there you see another spark: validation of Kyle’s passion by an expert in his field, and an invitation out of the disability world, or the special world, and into the regular world, the regular martial arts class. And that really helped that family, I imagine, that everything they believed and knew about him, which is that he deserved a full life and a community was actually true. That there was somebody out there who believed what they believed. So again, you see this fanning of the flames.

So this was 2012, when all this happens, and Kyle starts taking these classes, and we just received an email about a month ago that Kyle has his black belt in gumdo. And that’s actually a story that we’re gonna share next on this series. It took a lot of people to hold the flame of his passion. Kyle, himself, of course, insisting on a life that relates to martial arts. It was our staff, the paid people in Kyle’s life, people in the martial arts community, as well as it was his family. So, it was everybody kind of acting with intention and helping this thing to move forward.

That’s one path, is what happens when a bunch of people keep contributing in little ways over time. Also important to notice, is how very fragile each point along that journey is. Is that it could have been smothered by the doubt of a staff, the certainty of a staff, the doubt of the family, the fear of a community member, lack of ambiguity from Kyle about where does this even go, why invest in this. So, there’s so many places along the story where it could’ve all fallen apart. To us at Starfire, the biggest tragedy would be that a story like this would be lost. And, we actually think that this happen an awful lot. People’s stories get lost because we’re not fanning the flames, and we accidentally smother the points at which these kinds of stories and lives could emerge. So, we really believe that when you notice a spark, the key is to notice it and then to notice your own doubts or worries or concerns, and then to tamper those a little bit, and provide room for that spark to turn into a flame, to catch fire, to spread wildly in a way that would really ignite someone’s whole community, their whole family, their whole selves, their whole future.


This is part of our Story Series, “The Spark.” Subscribe and get this series in your inbox every week! 

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What do you do?

It’s common. One of the first questions people often ask when they meet you is: “What do you do?” For people with developmental disabilities, it’s a tough question to answer when the vast majority are out of work.

But Mike’s answer for the past five years has been different. He works at an architecture firm downtown Cincinnati, and says that he has grown personally, opened up more, and has built a sense of “family” at his workplace. Watch his video below!


This is part of our Story Series, “Staying.” Subscribe and get this series in your inbox every week! 

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The Data.

Data plays an important part in the fidelity and growth of our work. Tracking outcomes gives us the ability to share our success in a way that looks concrete, less subjective.

Starfire Cincinnati Data Research

But data on its own is hopeless. That’s why we have stories to back our outcome of “Maintaining connections.” This data point looks a variety of ways, such as: lasting friendships, connections to coworkers, or close neighborhood ties. The basic idea is that we are helping people with disabilities connect to relationships with people without disabilities by supporting them in a role that matters to them.

What roles do you have in your life, and how does staying with these roles help you connect to meaningful relationships over time?


This is part of our Story Series, “Staying.” Subscribe and get this series in your inbox every week! 

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Four years later…

For the past 4 years, Michelle (see video below) has been meeting with a group of writers at a local coffee shop.

“I like the people, the high energy. People in this group are easy-going and great. In the – ‘nonjudgmental’ – great.”
– Michelle Dunford, Write Me, I’m Yours co-founder

The group originally connected as part of Michelle’s work with Starfire, where they did a writing project together. The project was to engage writers across the city by setting out journals at local coffee shops and inviting people to contribute. They called the project “Write Me, I’m Yours,” which is now also the name of their monthly writing group.

“I’m always the first one there. Everyone has their own unique poetry style. I get excited and nervous when I have to read because some of the stuff I write about can be dark.”

A few things I love about this story.

1) They stayed in touch after their project was through. Working on something cool and interesting together gave this group of writers the gift of lasting ties to one another. That’s why we spend a lot of our time doing projects just like Michelle’s in our work as community builders, it creates bonds that span time.

2) The effort is completely community-based and driven by the writers themselves. Outside of Starfire’s structure and support, without morphing into a “special needs” writing circle solely for Michelle and other people with disabilities, the group of writers made a commitment – to stay in each other’s lives year after year, while Starfire stood on the sidelines admiring.


“Michelle is the glue that keeps the group together. Michelle is the core and things don’t feel right when she’s not there. There is no difference in how we conduct the circle. We don’t censor or adjust the agenda. She’s an integral part of the group.”
-Eva Lewandowski, Write Me, I’m Yours co-founder

3) They have some pretty amazing work coming out of their writing circle. Here’s one poem they worked on together with Cincinnati’s Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel.

“As far as I’m concerned, although I do blog and write articles, I don’t consider myself a writer. However, the writing circle has allowed me to tap into my creativity. But best of all, it’s provided me with a close circle of friends that wouldn’t have happened had this circle not existed.”
– Eva

Stories like this are at the top of our list – as beautiful examples of people coming together over shared passion, and making the most impressive commitment to one another: to stay.

p.s. A look back at 2014, when the “Write Me, I’m Yours” project was first led by Michelle!


This is part TWO of our Story Series, “Staying.” Subscribe and get this series in your inbox every week! 

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“Staying” – part one.

Starfire is launching a new Story Series, based on a certain theme every couple of months. We’ll break our story down in various ways: video, data points, and ways you can get involved.

The first Story Series theme is “Staying.” 

What does it mean to “stay?” Why is this important to our work in the community around people with disabilities? Read below or listen with Soundcloud to hear Tim Vogt’s 3-question interview on this series’ theme with me!

Katie: So, why is the concept of staying important to Starfire’s work?

Tim: There is a great quote by Wendell Berry, and he talks about the marriage vows and they are not for better and for richer and for health, they are for better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness and health. He says that in staying we learn something closer to the truth which is that not everything in life is happy, and not everything in life is great. I think people with disabilities and their families that I know, relate that there is a great joy in life, especially when they get included and supported and loved in a way that we at Starfire hope that they could be. That continues to be a struggle for them and their families. So, if we can think about staying in solidarity, and in fraternity, and in relationship with people, we can be with them in that struggle, and it can lead to some good things, but it could be tough, many tough days.

I also think that when we think about “staying” we think about that same quote reminding us that there’s going to ups and downs and it might be tempting to leave. Leaving is an assumption that somewhere else is going to be better, but staying seems to be an invitation and a commitment to making this place better or this life better or this relationship better. So staying implies, in the depth of that concept, that I’m not just going to get out of here; I’m not going to leave you or this place. I am going to be here. There are going to ups and downs and good days and bad days, but I am still going to be here. So I think staying through those good days and bad days, and through the struggles and through the joys, and paying attention to the closer you get to the truth of what life is all about, what inclusion is all about.

Inclusion is not all happy and fun; it means I accept you as you are.

I believe you can do better, but I accept you as you are. And you belong already; there is no need for you to have to earn it or prove that you are valuable, more valuable than you already are, so the idea of stay relates to peace. It relates to rest; it relates to some sort of satisfaction, and it relates to time in a really great way that I chose to commit myself to people, or a place, or to an idea, in a way that just gives the long story a chance to unfold. People with disabilities have a really small degree of imagination of story and imagination around their lives. There is a very short story about disability. It fits in this box and goes here and these people go here and that is what defines their life. So it is not a very big story and if we can stay with people and help nurture and participate in their journey and struggle for a better life, then we can see that there is a better story. You have to stay to see that better story.

Katie: Is it important to talk about staying because that isn’t a common reality for people with disabilities for in their lives that people often do not “stay”?

Tim: Yeah, I mean, when we look at the people that we support and the people that we love and know with disabilities, we see a lot of leaving in their lives. You’ve got professionals that are in and out depending on their next job, or if they got fired or promoted or left. So, there’s this constant turnover. And if we’re being really honest, we hear that there’s a lot of absence of community and rejection sometimes for people with disabilities and their families. And, an absence and rejection is a leaving of sorts. Right? Like, you’re left alone. We’re outta here. We’re not gonna be with you anymore. So, when you’ve got a disability, you’ve got this turnover almost in your life. Your social stories are very short. People are in it for a few minutes or a few hours or a few weeks or months as professionals, they’re not really in it for a long period of time. So, the counter, the antidote would be staying, the people that are there for a long time.

There’s also just an interesting, I would call it a creative limitation, that people with disabilities and their families are inviting us into.

A lot of people I know who have disabilities can’t drive. And so, their mobility is limited. They might not be able up and move to a new city for college because college isn’t even an option. Or, they would lose their funding if they moved out of state. Or, the public transportation system doesn’t actually travel between cities, you know. So, the mobility of people with disabilities is really physically limited, and the options of moving about are limited. So, then if we’re asking the question, “How might someone with a disability have a good life?” one of the factors is we that we think the reality is they’re going to be limited in how they move about.

So, we would want to develop local networks and really have people who have stayed around them be part of the story, that would have known them for a long time. The last aspect of stay that I can think of that really matters is that staying relates to taking care of a place and the people in that place. So, there’s another great essay that Wendell Berry wrote about his family’s farm and the generations of his family that have taken care of that place. And there’s a, by taking care of that place, they’re taking care of the people around them and of that place too. So, people who take care of a neighborhood or take care of a block, or take care of a city; because they’ve lived there their whole lives, those are the kind of people who create a culture where somebody’s looking after the place and the people in it.

And, if we could have more people stay and own the caretaking of places, and root themselves deeply, they would grow big networks, and they would, over time, probably build a culture that was very conducive to the lives of people with disabilities and that culture.

 Katie: So, last question. Who do you think is called to stay? And, how do they do that?

 Tim: I think we’re all called to stay. However, I don’t think that any of us are required to stay. There are good reasons for moving on from relationships and places. You can’t afford it, or the person you’re committed to turns out not to be the person that you thought they were, and that’s dangerous. But, I think that the problem is that if we don’t leave the potential for staying open, then we don’t ever invest deeply. We don’t get to know the people around us because we’re already out the door. We’re buying this next house in order to flip it in five years, and move to a new place. So, why would we invest in each other? Why would we care about each other’s well-being? Why would we look out for our neighbors? Why would we bring flowers to the woman whose husband passed away across the street? Why would we, you know, get to know the kids on our block if we’re gonna be gone in a few years’ time? So, the temporary-ness that we start with is key. Or the permanency.

If we start with an idea that this might be a place that I stay, and we find out that it’s not, that’s great because the assumption was there to begin with, and we invested as if we were going to stay. I once met a woman who really challenged me on that. And she said, “I was a military kid. I had to move.” She said, “And, I’m still a military wife now.” And she said, “I still have to move.” And she said, “But every place I go, I invest like I’m gonna be there for the rest of my life.” That was awesome and beautiful.

She didn’t forego relationships, she didn’t create an absence in the neighborhood or in the families around her by assuming that she would be gone. She actively, intentionally said I’m going to invest, because I know I’m gonna be gone but I still need to take care of this place by investing in it as though I’m gonna live here myself.

So, if I’m a person with a disability and I don’t get to move, but everybody around me is flipping their houses every five years, and everybody is of the mindset that they’re outta here in a few years, then quickly my condition deteriorates, and I could be stuck. And, instead of staying, I’m stuck. Everybody around me – no one knows me. No one’s built a great garden that I can be a part of. Nobody knows when my birthday is. And, I’m not a part of their world either.


This is part of our Story Series, “Staying.” Subscribe and get this series in your inbox every week! 

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Integrated Employment Series #2

Read the first part of our Integrated Employment Series here

Spencer’s Job at Local Donut Shop

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“I’m ready to move into a community job. I feel pretty happy about leaving the workshop. I’m ready to go out into the community, and prove to them that I can go out in the community. I can make more money, work more hours, have much more fun, I love that. I’m excited I get to work with good people, and bring my food work ethic and enthusiasm to the table. It’s who I am. I get to show them what I’m made of.”

Danny’s Job at his Local Pub

“It’s good here. I like helping other people. I think it’s really nice to see all my friends here. My favorite part of the job is making money.”

Erika’s Job as a Teacher Assistant at a Daycare


“After the interview, I was thinking very positive. I felt nervous, but I felt like I had this. They called and said “Hey, by the way, congratulations you got the job. Would you like to come in to pick up your paperwork?” My job is to work with other teachers and if the other classrooms need help, I’m there. I see a brighter future for myself here.
Having a new experience come into my life, it’s like having a newborn baby. I’m happy. It’s exciting. I’m looking forward to learning anything new. Learning is the key thing for me, so I know how to run the daycare with them.”

Mike’s job at Custom Cabinetry Business



Chris’ Job at Downtown Bike Share


“There’s a ton of things to do around here, and there were a lot of things that we would love to be doing but that were falling through the cracks or we weren’t able to take care of – and Chris has knocked that out for us. It’s been a huge help for us  – it’s provided a much cleaner shop and it’s allowed us to clean more bikes and keep the quality and the cleanliness of the bikes better. What we found at RedBike to really find that there’s a ton of opportunities for Chris to have a big impact, and he has.”

Joe’s Dream Job at the Zoo

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When I got in it was kind of exciting – really exciting. The main job I always wanted to have was to have a job at the zoo – and now I have it. But I’m still hoping to grow. I’m hoping to learn – to get some experiences. And I’m trying to get involved in some more stuff there. They have these internships — all different kinds of internships: feeding the animals, taking care of plants, teaching kids about animals in school groups, doing stuff like that. I’m in the process of reaching out. I’m happy about being here. I feel like it’s a good environment.


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




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A letter from Jayla

Hello my name is Jayla and I’m 18 years old. My high school DePaul Cristo Rey  has a corporate work study program and this year they placed me to work at Starfire. At first, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I walked in a little nervous and quiet, but I also walked in with an open heart to new things. Back then I wasn’t totally sure but now I’m totally sure that I love this place. My whole outlook on Starfire changed as soon as I walked into the door of the building because everybody was so welcoming and nice.

Working at Starfire itself is fun but also cool because they made my view of everything broader. They fight for the same idea that I fight for which is social justice for marginalized people. I know that people with disabilities are isolated from the community, but I never fully paid attention how serious the situation is. People with disabilities are as human as people who don’t have a disability. They breathe the same air, so who is to say that they are different. I wish everybody was equal, this world would be a better place. Sad to say that the world we live in everybody is not equal. But what I’m proud about is that change is happening.


This is Dylan, Tod, and me on the street car

I have enjoyed my time with Starfire because I got to connect and build relationships with people with disabilities.

“This job has to offer a lot you build relationships with others, but also opens up your mind to new ideas. Those ideas that come to you on this job will help you help others.”


College Hill Café with me, Joseph and Michelle

I learned that certain battles I can’t fight and that I may have issues but other people may have a more intense issue everything isn’t just about me. Working here made me want to do more with the community and care for others. Even though you might be living with a disability, you are still someone who has a dream. Everybody has a story but with determination, humility and having a positive attitude you will be successful in life. If you don’t get anything out of this letter just remember this having a disability cannot keep you away from accomplishing your goals.

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A job and a life – Douglas’ Story


Douglas is going on his 3rd year as an employee at one of Cincinnati’s most popular local establishments, Eli’s BBQ. He also has been working at Fireside Pizza for the past 2 years. Both restaurants are in/around the neighborhood of Walnut Hills, and that’s where Douglas lives.

When Douglas comes home from work – you can see the joy in the face, and the connection that has there now. He just glows,” Paula, Douglas’ mom.

Employment is an important part of life in America. “What do you do?” is one of the most common questions people ask when getting to know you. So when Douglas can answer back, “Eli’s and Fireside Pizza,” you can imagine how working this raises his status in any conversation.

Here’s a glimpse of what Douglas’ first year of employment looked like…

Awesome, right? But… a job is still a job. A paycheck is nice, but relationships are what make life truly rich. When we can have both a paycheck and a social life, life finds its sweet spot. So after our Connectors at Starfire helped Douglas get settled in his new paid roles, the further step was discovering relationships.

Douglas’ real, true interest “since he was tiny” is in movies. He might not share a lot in conversation, but when the topic of movies comes up, Douglas has a lot to add. So his Connector began reaching out to neighbors who like movies too. Now, several of his neighbors meet up bi-monthly (sometimes weekly) for movie nights (they all share a particular love for the Harry Potter series).

Slowly, these connections have started to show themselves in a “real community” way. This year, Walnut Hills held their annual StreetFest and as Douglas was walking there from his house – he bumped into Anne and Andrew (movie night friends) who were on their way there also. Immediately, they fell into conversation about movies as they carried on their way together to the festival. The simplest moments, like this one, can make all the difference in combating isolation so many people with developmental disabilities feel.

“It’s so hard these days to find real community – and here was real community right in our neighborhood!” his mother expressed. “To have these social connections – and to have that feeling that what he’s communicating is being received and understood – he’s really part of a group.”


Anne, Andrew, and Douglas

Before Starfire, Douglas’ life looked a bit different, and we’re so happy he and his family have joined us on this journey to build community around his passions and in his local neighborhood.

Check out Landlocked Social House, Anne and Andrew’s Craft Coffee + Beer start-up on Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/profile/599834529/about

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