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:


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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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