Alex Bends, a member of Circle of Friends, lives life with several disabilities. She is autistic, bipolar, and has Crohn’s disease, along with other challenges. After feeling broken and like the weird kid, she said everything changed for her when she found the nonprofit Circle of Friends. “Now I don’t have to wonder if someone’s out there, if someone understands me. Now I have a whole community of people who do.”
“We don’t want to live in sterile hospitals,” Alex said. “We don’t want to live in buildings where everything we do is monitored and controlled. We want freedom. We want to be normal. We are humans, and we deserve to be treated as such.”
Circle of Friends (COF) exists to transform environments of isolation into communities of inclusion by creating opportunities for connection, purpose and belonging in three ways:
1. Social engagement (visit circleoffriendsinc.org for bi-monthly meeting details)
2. Supportive employment
3. Affordable community housing
“These days the world needs a community like Mayberry,” said Stephen Taylor, executive director of COF. “A return to simpler times, where everyone is included, cares for each other and has their place.” Stephen, born profoundly deaf, understands the daily challenges of living with a disability. He has dedicated his life to bridging the gaps between the disabilities community, the church, and the world. Building a modern day Mayberry through COF, where people like Alex can flourish, fuels his passion to keep serving.
Circle of Friends began in 2010 with the first goal — social gatherings. Led by Diane and Glenn Keen (COF co-founders) they meet at Hickory Flat United Methodist Church. A group of parents and their children, with unique needs, gets together twice a month to socialize and go on outings. Diane holds a doctorate of nursing degree from Kennesaw State University and has committed all of her research to the field of intergenerational, supportive living communities for adults with disabilities.
Diane and Glenn’s son, Haden, has high-functioning autism and is an active member of Circle of Friends. After a Town Hall held in the summer of 2019 at Hickory Flat UMC, a survey of the young adults was made to guide the development of goal No. 3: affordable community housing. Work is underway to make that happen.
To meet the second goal of supportive employment, COF is opening a coffee shop inside The Circuit, Cherokee County’s first co-working space located in Chattahoochee Technical College at One Innovation Way, in downtown Woodstock. If all goes as planned, the grand opening will happen Feb. 15. The café will serve Cherokee-based Alma Coffee and will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays – Fridays. The shop also will feature a variety of signature teas and smoothies along with seasonal baked goods.
“Circle of Friend’s commitment to serving the special needs community brings a unique synergy to The Circuit,” said COED President Misti Martin. “Centered around a student center and supportive coworking community, the new café will thrive with the support of entrepreneurs and young people that work in the space.”
COF’s Alex is thrilled about her new job as a barista.
Another friend and barista, Bryan Nance, said, “Circle of Friends gives me a chance to make new friends. With the coffee shop opening I will be able to have a job and learn new skills and become more independent. I look forward to the time the housing is built to be able to live on my own.”
To donate or learn more about how to become a part of this life-changing endeavor, visit: circleoffriendsinc.org or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Like and share their Facebook and Instagram pages @CircleofFriends.LivingwithPurpose.
By Susan Schulz, a wife, mom, writer and mentor who lives and plays along the Etowah River in Canton. She loves serving at Woodstock City Church.