Have you ever considered what makes you feel you are part of a positive and healthy community? How do you know that you are valued by others around you? When do you experience feelings of belonging? Maybe it’s when you have something to get out of bed for every day, or when you’re surrounded by others with shared interests and common goals. Maybe it’s when you feel accomplished because your skills and strengths are celebrated. Maybe it’s as simple as running into someone you know and love on a trip to the grocery store or the park — someone who can call you by name with a smile on their face.

When Friends Life Community was created 15 years ago the founders were determined to build a life filled with friendship, purpose, and community for their loved ones with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The alternative – isolation and lack of purpose – wasn’t an option. While they set specific goals and outcomes, they knew that the truest measure of success couldn’t be contained in the number of participants served, or the number of partnerships secured. The success they envisioned would rest on the Friends saying at Friends Life Community, “We are best friends. We are one family.” Families would one day look at the community surrounding their loved ones and say it “is incredible. I wish we could quantify it because it could be listed as a miracle.”

These qualitative goals shape the decisions we make and the opportunities we create for the Friends. It’s not enough to tally participation numbers, or calculate program hours or time spent at community partner locations. It’s about creating a sense of belonging and purpose for the Friends. It’s about forging connections in the community where the Friends are included in activities, considered for job openings, or invited to speak, perform, or share their art in front of an audience. It’s about being able to run into someone they know who can call them by name with a smile on their face.

Last week a group of Friends ran into a woman named Erin on a trip to the park. She immediately recognized many of them, calling them by name. She was excited to share that she had seen some of their live performances, had almost every tea towel design they’ve created in her kitchen, and had even known one of them since high school through a mutual friend. In this small moment, the Friends experienced the joy of purpose and of being valued by others. Her joy at seeing them and recounting the ways their participation in the community had touched her life created a “miraculous” moment.

This is just one example of the sense of connection and belonging the Friends experience with each other and with others in their community every day. We are so grateful to all of you, our community partners and supporters who believe in the power of belonging and who work to break down barriers and create opportunities for adults with disabilities. Together, we are creating a more inclusive Nashville, indeed, a more inclusive world.

Three women and a small child standing together outside in a park