Years ago, while working as a volunteer at a camp for the mentally disabled, Margaret Alexander decided she wanted to offer campers more than once-a-year activities.
She organized a social group to meet monthly at Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where she is a member, for an evening of games, singing, dancing and other activities. More than a decade later, the group continues to draw members from across the community, giving them a fun place to be themselves and their caregivers a night out for dinner or a movie.
Alexander began the effort in 1989 as a small goodwill project with five people. Now it draws 30, some who drive more than an hour to the church.
She receives more than she gives, Alexander, 58, who processes claims for an insurance company, says. "I probably get more out of doing this than they do," she said. "I work at the office, and it's a hard tough day, and I go straight to the church. They uplift me. They make me feel good. I can be tired, (but) they just uplift me so."
It is a diverse group, some as young as 18, and others, 60. Some have Down's syndrome and autism, while others, considered slow learners, attend traditional schools and hold jobs. They gather for a meal and an evening of games, singing, dancing and sometimes a craft. They watch movies and share stories. Sometimes they attend baseball games and go on other field trips.
Alexander also helped start two other groups, and a third group run by fellow camp volunteers has sprouted, too. Alexander sometimes joins that group for field trips, Christmas parties and other activities.
She gets help from eight other volunteers at Saint Mark United Methodist Church. Together they have forged a close relationship, she said. She often gets phone calls from members who report big news or simply want to chat.
"It's just a chance to give the participants a place to fellowship with their peers, and also give a rest to their parents or caregivers," she said. "People don't always accept people who are different. Whether they've been mentally challenged or physically challenged or whatever, this is just a chance for them to come together and have a good time with their peers."
Jeff Jackson, 27, looks forward to participating in the group each month. He said he sometimes is called names because of his disability, but with the group he enjoys playing games, throwing parties and making friends.
"We meet lots of friends here," he said.
Katherine Robinson, 31, enjoys the field trips but, like Jackson, values her friends most.
"I love my good friends a lot," she said. "I love going out with them. And I like being with them."
A friend urged Alexander to volunteer at the camp for the mentally disabled in the early 1980s. She was touched by her campers' affection and honesty.
"It was just something that grabbed me," Alexander said. "It just kind of grabbed my heart."
Alexander's work has touched the congregation, too, says the Rev. Mikah Hudson, associate pastor of the church, which draws about 450 on an average Sunday. It has pulled the congregation together, he says. For example, Sunday school classes help prepare the group's meals.
"They initially approach it as trying to help people that they feel like are less fortunate," he said. "But yet they leave knowing that God's love radiates through that person and touches their lives as well."
Alexander is proud the group has reached beyond her denomination, drawing its members from churches across the community. She also believes the group has raised awareness within her own congregation. She is glad to hear about congregation members who strike up conversations with group members when they meet in grocery stores and restaurants.
She plans to continue running the group as long as there is interest, she said.
"They're just people like you and I, just wanting to have a good time," she said.
*Amy Green is a freelance journalist based in Nashville, Tenn. News media can contact Tim Tanton at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.