by Kempton Presley, PharmMD, Board Chair
I first visited Friends Life Community about four years ago when I felt myself being drawn in by an event they were hosting on their property. At the time, I had no idea what Friends Life Community represented; yet, the environment was inviting for a multitude of reasons. I watched as adults and children from all walks of life worked together to support their yard sale. I could tell some of the adults were different, but there was something infectious and familiar about the atmosphere.
There was a tone that made it easy to cut through any forced small talk, awkwardness, or insecurity we tend to embrace when we venture out of our comfort zones. Rather, people seemed unafraid to introduce themselves to strangers, tell them what made them thankful, or even given them a hug! A spirit of gratitude and belonging elevated the collective interaction, crowding out any mundane woes.
Now, before I continue, there is something you should know. My brother James could not participate in the formal communities that characterized my childhood or adolescence. To tell you the truth, he didn’t make it too far beyond the second grade, much less attend high school. James has an intellectual disability, a circumstance that makes his life very different from the typical person.
While he has faced many challenges—the inability to read, drive, or live on his own—James possesses many gifts and talents, too. He can hear a song once and memorize the bass line; he speaks with a level of bluntness that steamrolls any artificiality or pretense; and he embraces a sincere and unapologetic charm, which has made him quite the ladies’ man!
Unsurprisingly, James was a hit with our high school friends, bringing as much to our community as we brought to his. Sadly, the informal community James enjoyed, and in many ways fostered, wouldn’t continue in the same way when I left for college—a departure from Nashville that would last more than 12 years.
Without his community and friends nearby, James became a homebody. He experienced firsthand what happens to so many young adults with disabilities who have aged out of the school system and no longer have the continuity of a social network.
James experienced isolation and began to regress, until several years later when he landed at the Stewart Home School in Frankfort, KY.
Suddenly, his equilibrium was back in check. He started flourishing at Stewart Home School. He found a culture of acceptance and positivity, one that enabled people like James—people with disabilities—to transform the perspectives of those who are able-bodied but in need of something deeper.
While James was in a good place, I feared that so many young adults had not found community, that they would continue experiencing isolation and atrophy with no end in sight. I desired to bridge this gap in some way, but I didn’t know how I could help.
Until I found myself standing on the Friends Life Community lawn—at a yard sale.
Following my return to Nashville, as I balanced family life with a new career, I rarely had opportunities to interact with people with special needs, or those who valued those interactions as much as I do.
In some ways, encountering Friends Life Community that day felt like a small but crucial part of finally, really, coming home.
That same experience has repeated itself on a variety of occasions. I enter the Friends Life Community stone gates with a laundry list of worries, burdens driven by calendar conflicts, a tough conference call, or an
unexpected expense. Any outside frustration or annoyance disintegrates immediately when the Friends (Friends Life Community participants) welcome me into the antebellum stone building. They fill my ears with salutations and genuine inquiries about my well-being.
The Friends bombard every entrant with a personalized, unapologetic, real-time infusion of positivity and care. They who may have trouble speaking, walking, or participating in “normal life” unreservedly throw unconditional love and respect into a world that hasn’t always done so for them. In watching other visitors to Friends Life Community, I have witnessed the shock, awe, and relief that each person experiences with these unfettered welcomes. It’s contagious. It brings a sense of wholeness and gratitude that you can carry with you when you leave.
These days, I currently serve as Chair of Friends Life Community’s board. Since that first day I stepped onto the property, I’ve shared countless high fives, received hundreds of those enthusiastic welcomes, and attended Songwriters’ Night fundraisers, community Christmas parties, and on-site food truck rallies.
Throughout my time on the Board at Friends Life Community, I have also been a part of major growth and transition with the organization. The challenges that come with that growth are not unlike the same I have experienced in the for-profit world. All previous milestones have been experienced and achieved so that we can solidify and enhance the foundation on which the organization now stands.
We want Friends Life Community to be here for years and decades to come, so no young person with special needs experiences isolation. I serve on the board to help bridge the gap.
Through our internal mission and outward focus, Friends Life Community not only brings purpose, meaning, and transformation to the participants and their families, the organization also represents something for the local community. Friends Life Community brings people together to transcend limitations, focusing on what we can do together instead of what we cannot on our own.
The organization strives to increase the independence of every Friend so that they can build relationships with others and become more active in Nashville. Those with special needs have a great deal to give and contribute to those around them.
When everyone has an equal place in this world, the possibilities are endless.
Or, as we say at Friends Life Community, “Together, we are extraordinary.”
Kempton Presley is Vice President of Enterprise Business Information Solutions at PharmMD. He currently serves as Board Chair of Friends Life Community. You, too, can support the mission of Friends Life Community. Visit driven.funraise.org to make a difference in the lives of adults with special needs.