In typical younger-brother fashion, Jordan Decker wanted to follow in the footsteps of his role model and older brother, Josh. Eighteen-year-old Jordan would tell everyone he was going to college, just like Josh. Several years later, as his parents moved his younger sister Lindy into her Samford University dorm room, Jordan, then 24, again announced his plans to attend college.
“It broke my heart,” Lindy says. “I knew that Jordan and his many friends all wanted to experience the ‘next steps’ in life, just like everyone else.”
Today though, Jordan attends Unless U—a school whose name is a collegiate spin on a quote from Doctor Seuss’ The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Who made this opportunity possible? That would be his sister, Lindy Cleveland, Unless U’s founder and executive director.
Filling a Gap in the Community
Unless U serves adults with developmental disabilities like Jordan, and their families, through continuing education curriculum centered on academics, life and social skills, and ministry. “Unless U envisions a world where adults with developmental disabilities are not seen through the lens of their disability, but rather through what they offer the community,” the organization’s vision statement reads.
Unlike workforce readiness or recreational-based programs for people with special needs, the Unless U curriculum caters to the “whole person” through an equal focus on students’ academic, social and spiritual wellbeing. Unless U’s spiritual component, low student-teacher ratio (1:5) and lack of graduation date are uncommon among similar programs.
Unless U occupies four classrooms at Shades Mountain Baptist, each specific to a different subject: life skills, social skills, math, reading and Bible study. Lead instructors teach one subject four times each day, modifying the lesson to meet the needs of individuals in each particular group.
Most of Unless U’s educators are retired special education teachers, stay-at-home moms with teaching degrees who are looking for something part-time or people who are personally familiar with special education.
Lindy’s husband, Mitch, an inclusion specialist at Liberty Park Middle School says he’s “extremely proud” of his wife for continuing the efforts of special educators post high school. “As a special educator, this is really exciting to have for students after high school,” Mitch says. “She’s assembled a phenomenal staff here.”
Unless U students beam with admiration for their teachers, viewing them more as friends than instructors. But there’s something else about the school environment that students appreciate the most. “Unless U provides [my son] Malone the opportunity to develop relationships with old friends and make new ones,” parent Becky Morgan says. “He also enjoys learning about current events, life skills and education…Malone considers his Unless U attendance as his own personal ‘college experience.’”
The Road to the U
Lindy’s involvement with the special needs community is no recent undertaking. As a teenager, she worked in special needs classrooms and with local organizations like Down Syndrome Alabama. These roles equipped Lindy with the skillset to start her own event, which she brought to life during her sophomore year of college.
To fundraise for the UAB Down Syndrome Clinic, Lindy launched Dance 4 Down Syndrome (D4D). D4D gives young adults with special needs a taste of the college experience through a night of dancing with their peers on Samford’s campus. This event, which is now held annually, elicited a strong response from the participants, eager for more chances to socialize in a college atmosphere.
“The whole reason I started Dance 4 Down Syndrome is to bring awareness to the fact that these are just people,” Lindy says. “It’s a night for people to interact with those who are different from them.”
As she brainstormed ways to recreate the success of D4D, Lindy also began to reevaluate her decision to major in elementary education/special education. “I knew that I wanted to work in the nonprofit world, so when I changed my major I had this realization: I want to start a continuing education program for families when their children [with special needs] age out of high school. What’s the best route to get me there?”
Through her new major in human development and family life education, Lindy was able to customize her studies, focusing her research on the special needs population. Her senior project required her to build a mock nonprofit, complete with a funding plan. “I told my professor, ‘This isn’t just a project for me. I really want to do this,’” she recalls.
During her time at Samford, Lindy worked relentlessly with her family and professors to make her vision a reality. The Unless U pilot program operated out of her parents’ Vestavia Hills home, starting off with four students she tenderly branded her “founding fathers.” Lindy realized the organization would require more community support before finding a more permanent home. So after months of fine-tuning the curriculum and hunting for a bigger location, Lindy took a gamble by asking her church, Shades Mountain Baptist, if it would consider leasing space to the new nonprofit.
“What the church did for us, providing the space, is the only way we could be where we are today,” she says. “They’ve been incredibly gracious and supportive, and there’s no way we could have done this without their help.”
Agreeing to host the nonprofit for as long as necessary, Shades Mountain Baptist laid the foundation for its opening day and ribbon cutting ceremony in November 2014. “In that moment I realized that all the years of praying, planning and preparing had materialized into this victorious moment in time, and Unless U became a reality that day,” Lindy recalls.
A Community Cause
In just two years, Unless U matured from a small group of 10 to four classrooms full of nearly 50 students total. Lindy doesn’t want to have to turn anyone away, but she says soon she’ll have to. “We’re at the point where we’re capping our growth if we stay here much longer, and we want to continue to be able to meet this need,” she says.
Where will the organization go when they outgrow their space at Shades Mountain? They’d certainly like to stay nearby. “We feel like Vestavia really adopted us in this season and made our cause their cause,” Lindy says.
The support that validates their desire to stay over the mountain comes from local high school students. In fall of 2016, the Vestavia Hills High School SGA selected Unless U as the beneficiary of the school’s fall fundraisers like BBQ the Bucs and the Homecoming King contest.
In just one semester, the students raised over $50,000, more than twice the amount raised the previous year. Mitch says he’s never been more proud to call Vestavia Hills High School his alma mater. “The community is backing this, and parents are giving too,” Mitch says. “That’s why it was so successful, so clearly it’s for the cause.”
Lindy says they’ve never felt more welcomed in the city than when the high school presented the nonprofit with its largest donation to date. “There are no words for all that Vestavia did for us,” she says. “They have set us up for success in a way that we never dreamed possible.” Though her ultimate vision for Unless U extends beyond Vestavia Hills, Lindy believes the nonprofit should remain a local venture, given the area’s enthusiastic support from the start.
Unless U is working to find its next home, but the first chapter of its story will remain the same—a sister who cared a whole awful lot to bring a vision to life amongst the hills.
Get Involved with Unless U
Email Lindy Cleveland at firstname.lastname@example.org to see how you can help.
Shop ‘til you drop at the nonprofit’s main fundraiser, the Unless U Shop, held right before Mother’s Day in the Vestavia Hills Civic Center.
Unless U is hiring in the fall. Contact Lindy Cleveland for more details.
College students can partner with Unless U to earn school credit.