Aspire and Harvest Chapel cultivate a community

High school sports are a great way for students to learn about the benefits of teamwork, trust, and fellowship. The same can be true for the parents attending the games if they are ready when fate shines its light on them. Something special happened at a high school basketball game in January 2012, when Alma Thompson, co-lead pastor at Harvest Chapel Free Methodist Church in Fredonia, went to watch her son play a game in Gowanda.

As she sat at the game, her mind drifted to the challenges she was facing trying to obtain services for her brother who has a disability. Serendipitously, she happened to be sitting next to Betsy Dixon-Lang, Coordinator of Individualized Career and Transition Services with Aspire of WNY. Even though they had never met, Betsy noticed that Alma seemed pre-occupied and decided to ask her if everything was all right.

That simple gesture of kindness has developed into a collaboration that is impacting an entire community in ways that neither could have imagined. For the rest of the game, Betsy and Alma talked about their careers, and their shared philosophy of caring for people. Alma spoke of her brother and his challenges, while Betsy talked about people with disabilities in the Fredonia area who had to travel all the way to Jamestown because Aspire had not found an accessible facility locally.

“Betsy and I are both dreamers,” Alma explains. “Once we started talking, we both began to envision what we could do for the community by collaborating together.”

Harvest Chapel has classrooms that typically remain empty Monday through Friday, the same days that Aspire provides Day Services for clients. Soon after that initial conversation, a truly holistic relationship was born.

Alma explains that once they made the connection with Aspire, congregation members shared similar challenges they have had with their family members and they welcomed the relationship. At the same time, it was apparent that Aspire’s clients were both willing and very capable of helping out around the church and baking cookies for Sunday services.

For years, an elderly member of the Harvest Chapel congregation had brought in homemade jam to give to parishioners after service. Recently, the time came when she could no longer manage it, so Aspire individuals stepped in. They learned how to make the jam and kept the tradition alive.

“Aspire’s focus is on creating individualized programs for our folks,” Betsy explains. “With our SVLEP (Supported Volunteering and Lifestyle Enrichment Program) we can fully leverage the collaboration with Harvest Chapel and create wonderful opportunities for our individuals to learn new things and participate in the community.”

Another benefit of the partnership is the networking opportunities that are developing. Both Harvest Chapel and Aspire are sharing contacts and relationships that end up benefiting everyone.

“It is very gratifying to me to be able to watch this blossom,” Alma says. “My husband and co-pastor Brent, our leadership team, and the board of directors are all at a point that when we discuss the future, we are thinking about potential opportunities with Aspire in mind.”

This past summer, several Aspire individuals, began taking care of a large vegetable garden on the Harvest Chapel grounds. The longtime caretaker of the garden was a parishioner who has since moved to Florida. Despite all of their hard work, much of the garden fell victim to woodchucks and the deer that live in the woods near there.

“No matter what we tried,” Betsy explains, “we just couldn’t keep the woodchucks and the deer away from our vegetables. At harvest time, we had just enough to make some pesto and salsa, but our hopes were much higher than that.”

This spring, Alma and Betsy, are determined to find a way to protect their garden and are hoping someone in the community comes forward with help or ideas to save the garden. After all, they are working on cultivating much more than a vegetable garden; they are enriching the lives of an entire community.

“I call what we are doing, sharing life by sharing life,” Alma says. “Striving to live life well in this moment, caring for others, and you find that the benefits you receive are immeasurable.”

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