When Jason Kirkland joined Saint Francis Ministries 17 years ago, he wasn’t sure what to expect. He had never worked with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, although he’d spent his career serving those with physical disabilities.

What he found were people who would change him – and even his family – at the core.

Jason leads Saint Francis Mississippi, where we serve individuals with ID/DD through residential and adult day services.

“The things that I take for granted. . . I can go get in my truck and just drive around, and go to Tennessee if I want to,” Jason said. “The residents at Bridgeway and Cheshire have to rely on us to take them everywhere. Another thing that has transformed me is how much they appreciate everything, and how loving they are.”

When things don’t go exactly as he’d like in life, Jason said he can get frustrated. But working with the ID/DD community has shown him a different way to approach things.

“I may complain about having to go to Walmart to get something, but that’s the highlight of their day,” he said. “There’s a lot that I’ve taken for granted that has really opened my eyes working with this population. It’s rewarding that I’m their family. I’m actually like a father role model to a lot of these guys.”

Jason said he’s happy to take that role and help the residents of Cheshire and Bridgeway know that they should be treated just like anyone else – as human beings. He focuses on their strengths instead of their weaknesses. The way that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are treated in society has changed, but there still is room for improvement.

“Things are shifting,” he said. “There are still some barriers. But just to see the outpouring of these businesses in Mississippi is amazing. We have 22 or 23 businesses that support these guys. That’s significant. Not every community offers support like this, but Picayune does. As more Bridgeway and Cheshire residents work in the community, there are a lot of changed stereotypes.”

It’s what Jason and all the employees at the two Mississippi residential units work toward – improving education, ending stereotypes, building understanding of what it means to be ID/DD.

The success stories are heartwarming.

“With the exception of one or two residents, it was not their idea to move from home,” Jason said. “One resident, for example, said he didn’t want to move from home because his mother did everything for him. He said he’d give it six months, and he’s been here 10 years.”

Once they understand the possibilities and the freedom they get, the residents are happy to be at Bridgeway and Cheshire.

“They can make choices without their parents telling them every single move,” Jason said. “It’s life changing from that to one of independence, having their own place, a job, earning an income, and buying the things they want. Making choices – those are some of the major things.

The skill set they learn when they get away from a mom who does everything for them, is no different than anybody else’s, than any kid that’s left home and doesn’t know how to wash clothes.”

Living with parents can reduce their abilities to access the community resources and sometimes to learn independence. But at facilities like Saint Francis, the residents make new friends and have relationships.

Residents in the Cheshire facility, which Saint Francis took over in 2018, are also experiencing the same opportunities and it’s been wonderful to see people developing new skills there, Jason said.

“This is amazing work and I appreciate all the employees who are here, changing lives in this community,” Jason said.

In 2019, the state of Mississippi celebrated two residents who live at the Saint Francis Picayune facility. Here is the story they shared.

Carol Sewell grew up in Ocean Springs and moved to a home in Picayune, where she received Supervised Living services through the ID/DD Waiver in 2000. Shortly after Carol moved in, she was named Queen at her group home’s Beauty and Beau pageant, and that’s when she met Paul Breland, who was named King. The two remained friends, and eventually, Carol convinced Paul to join her on Thursdays for bowling with her league. The rest, as they say, is history! The two have been in a relationship for twelve years, and in 2018 began renting their own home and receiving Supported Living Services.

The services provide limited support from staff who help Carol and Paul access their community to pay bills, shop for groceries, access medical care, and other personal assistance as needed.The move to their own home took time. Carol and Paul worked hard to ensure they had the skills to live more independently.

“I wanted to make sure I could do it,” Paul said. “It was a big decision, but I knew I wanted to have my own home.” With permission from their landlord, the couple have painted several rooms of their home in bright, cheery colors. “It was too dark in here for us,” Paul said. “We painted the wood paneling and the kitchen cabinets. We love it here!”

Paul and Carol are just like many other couples. “I do the cooking and sewing, and Paul mows the grass and works in our garden,” says Carol. “She keeps me fed well,” Paul said. Carol’s cooking skills are a result of years working in the restaurant industry. She currently divides her time between two fast food restaurants, earning enough money to assist with her rent and bills each month. Paul is employed by a local grocery store in Picayune, where he is loved by staff and customers alike. He also works at the First Baptist Church, helping with setting up chairs and tables for events, lawn maintenance, and cleaning their chapel.

Carol’s mother and father and Paul’s mother have passed away, but both say they know their parents are proud of them for living an independent and fulfilling life. “I always prayed I’d make my mom proud,” Paul said. “I know she’s looking down on me and is happy about my life.”