There is change at The Gate — Gateway to Independence in Blount County as its new executive director takes over, but the mission of providing a safe and engaging environment for adults with disabilities remains firm.

Stephanie Livigni last month took over the 15-year-old nonprofit’s leadership role for a group whose participants gather on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Sycamore Tree United Methodist Church and branch out for additional experiences at Fort Craig, the home of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Blount County, each Thursday.

There are 53 adults in the program. Anyone can join The Gate at any time and stay in the program for as long as they like. Once in, most choose to stay, Livigni said.

“We have a waiting list,” she said. “I get a call once a week from people who have to be put on a waiting list. It is heartbreaking to be that person who says, ‘Well there is a waiting list and I don’t know when there is going to be an opening,’ because frankly, no one leaves The Gate.”

That no one leaves is a strong testament to what this program provides, she said, and Livigni certainly doesn’t want anyone to leave; the alternative is to expand. That is the strategic plan, Livigni said.

There aren’t any current plans for expanding. Sycamore Tree UMC has been the only home for The Gate. Down the road, the decision will have to be made about whether to stay at Sycamore Tree or look elsewhere for a lager space.

For now, the organization is staying put and working on one of its most important and popular annual fundraisers — DessertFest. It will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 2, at Alcoa High School, an earlier time than prior years and its second year at AHS.

A sweet opportunity

If it’s a dessert, chances are it will be on the table, Livigni said. And because it’s early in the day, breakfast foods like bagels, biscuits and doughnuts are on the menu, too. There will also be a silent auction with lots of donated goods and services.

Highest bidders take home the auction items, of course. But there is no cost to attend and sample the great array of sweets. Those who wish to can simply make a donation.

“All of the proceeds go 100 percent back into our programs,” Livigni said. The Gate receives no state or federal funding.

Other changes at The Gate include the upcoming retirement of Trudy White, program director, in May. She has been with The Gate since 2006. Jessica Lewis, who was a volunteer for a few years, is now on staff as assistant program director.

This will be the 16th year for DessertFest, Lewis said. She added that Ed Harper and his musical group, Pistol Creek Catch of the Day, will again perform.

Harper has worked with Gate participants for many years. They have formed their own singing group, called The Gate Crashers. Attendees at DessertFest will be entertained by this high-octane group, which many look forward to each year.

Members of Gate Crashers include friends Shelly and Elizabeth (the organization does not release full names of clients). Shelly has performed in the community many times. Elizabeth plays the harmonica and also piano. These two have formed a friendship dating back many years. They both said they have been practicing for their March 2 performance.

Busy and engaged

A visit to Sycamore Tree UMC on a recent Tuesday revealed just what these Gate participants can get involved with. In one room, a book club was underway. In a larger area, some were playing cards or working on crafts that will be sold at DessertFest. A chef comes once per month for a cooking club. Getting their nails painted or enjoying some outdoor activities are also on the list of activities.

Frank and Shirley Hogsed are founders of The Gate. They started the organization after their son, Russell, graduated from Maryville High School and there weren’t any other programs available. The Hogseds didn’t want their son to become isolated from friends and peers.

When it opened, there were five participants. Russell remains in the program and serves as an ambassador for the success and growth that has taken place over the years.

Livigni said she anticipates 300 people will attend DessertFest. AHS has ample space for that crowd or even more.

Getting to know

who they are

This event, in addition to being a great way to raise money for Gate programs, is also about awareness. Livigni said she will use the March 2 DessertFest to introduce her agency to those in Blount County who may have never heard of The Gate. She is also willing to speak at club meetings, schools, etc.

It’s getting to be a busy place with all the preparations for the annual fundraiser. Gate participants also are practicing for the upcoming Special Olympics basketball competition and weight lifting. Members compete in spring track and field and bowling.

Community supporters have continued to make The Gate a place where these adults say they love to come. Volunteers are retired individuals, family members and Maryville College students. Alcoa Kiwanis comes each month to host a program.

It all works with a staff of seven and a volunteer pool of about 18, said White, the program director.

Livigni has been in Blount County a short time, but Gate participants, families and Blount County residents have made her feel very welcome, she said, adding that she and her husband have a 2-year-old daughter and are expecting a second.

“We fell in love with Maryville,” she said. “We looked at Knoxville and Farragut and other places but this is where we want to be.”

Melanie joined The Daily Times in the early 90s and has served as the Life section editor since 1993. A William Blount and UT alum, Melanie is generally the early arriver who turns on the lights in the newsroom.

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