Program for disabled adults outgrowing current space
By Melanie Tucker | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Rev. Jeff Wadley and his congregation early on at Sycamore Tree knew what it was like to be nomads.
They first began meeting in members’ homes, at a funeral home, car dealership, school and a Baptist church before being able to acquire the building formerly occupied by Leon Williams Construction Co. on Clydesdale Street in Maryville.
So when Wadley read in The Daily Times back in 2004 that a new program for disabled young adults in Blount County needed a home, he reached for the phone. He didn’t know the person he was calling but he knew Sycamore Tree United Methodist Church was supposed to offer itself and its space.
It couldn’t have been coincidence that the same week the newspaper article came out, Wadley preached from Acts 3 about a disabled man being laid at the gate of a temple, asking for help. Wadley asked his congregation on that Sunday, “Who will be laid at our gate this week?”
The answer came pretty quickly.
So a short time after Wadley made that phone call, The Gate opened its doors at Sycamore Tree, a partnership that has blossomed from the start. The Gate is a nonprofit and not an official ministry of this church, but a partnership between two entities who saw the opportunity to reach out into a community and provide something valuable.
Once Wadley and his congregation moved into their permanent home, they began working on the building. That was back in 2002.
“Once we got here we knew we would have to renovate,” Wadley said. “It was a construction company. We wanted to make a church out of it.”
They installed heating and air, made classrooms, put in rest rooms and made other physical changes. The renovation project was divided up into three phases, the third just recently completed. Now Sycamore Tree has 6,000 square feet of space on that upper level which is now being used for classroom space for children and teens.
The Gate, which has certainly grown over the years, has taken over much of the main level area. Wadley said he jokingly tells Executive Director Christy Walsh “thanks for letting us use your building on Sundays and Wednesdays.”
A need for more space
“Since coming here, The Gate has taken over our fellowship hall, classrooms, kitchen, storage area, sanctuary and now they want 6,000 more square feet of space,” the pastor quipped.
At a recent board meeting for The Gate, Wadley said it became clear that downstairs space is no longer adequate for the 47 Gate participants. “We are also concerned and worried that there is a population in Blount County that needs to be here and we do not have adequate space,” the pastor said.
So that newly renovated upstairs space became the focus of attention. There is a big obstacle, however. The upper level is only stairway accessible. In order for The Gate to move there, a ramp will have to be installed. At first the church thought about an elevator, but that would not be acceptable should electricity be lost. Many of the Gate’s participants are in wheelchairs and would be stuck on the second floor.
Christy Walsh, the Gate’s executive director, said being able to move upstairs would afford the program many advantages. For one thing, not all of the 47 participants can come on the same day because of space limitations downstairs. They could with that extra room.
“When I came here, there were about 25 participants,” she said. “We currently have 47. We could not accommodate all 47 in this space at one time. Because we had people on the waiting list we have now opened a third day during the week.”
The program is offered to disabled young adults ages 22 to 30 and it meets on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Walsh said there are about 36 who come on Tuesdays, 39 on Wednesdays and 38 on Thursdays. There are some in the program who have passed their 30th birthdays and they are allowed to stay in, Walsh said. There is nothing out there for them.
Being upstairs would allow Walsh and her staff to divide up the students into different areas for games, crafts, music and other projects. At least eight of the Gate attendees have their own aides, which adds to the number of people at the site. But Walsh believes there are so many more individuals out there who could benefit from this program.
Why we’re here
“I don’t think we have even started to tap into the population that needs this service,” she said. There are 123,000 people living in Blount County and it is estimated that 7 percent of the population could take advantage of what The Gate has to offer.
Tessa Gaines is a member of Sycamore Tree United Methodist Church. She said when that last renovation work was done on the upper level, she knew God had other plans for the space.
“I have been called to pray and am asking others to join in,” Gaines said. “As a church, we have been praying for this. I do not believe that God would provide that space up there to be used for a couple of hours each week.”
So Sycamore, its congregation and The Gate are praying and studying options that include the building of a ramp. The Gate has no intentions of leaving the only home it’s ever known, which Sycamore Tree has provided free of charge.
Wadley said his church has four strategic goals — to reach up in worship, reach in to its congregation, reach out to the community and reach around the world. The partnership with The Gate certainly fits that plan. This church has grown from a dozen or so families to an average worship attendance of 130.
Walsh said the original founders of The Gate, Jo Bennett and Frank and Shirley Hogsed, are in awe of what this program has become. “The only way we have been able to maintain it is because Sycamore Tree is giving us this space,” Walsh said.
Walsh will continue adapting as The Gate grows. She said there may even be opportunities to add additional campuses some day. They will continue to be grateful for that phone call Wadley made back in 2004 and for the generosity evident every day.