MARTINSVILLE, VA — Each day, Tina Jackson still goes to school — at least, that’s what she calls Stepping Stones, a day support program for special-needs adults.
Recently she and friends Michelle Hodges and Jennifer Philpott were playing a board game and chatting about what they do there.
“We make crafts for just about every holiday,” Hodges said. “We have different staff. We have been here — how many years would you say, Tina?”
“Forty,” Jackson replied in earnest, with a big smile.
“Great day, Tina!” Hodges said, laughing and waving her hand to dismiss the exaggeration.
“It’s a worthwhile program,” Director Pamela Pritchett said.
Throughout the day, clients have lessons and opportunities to work on skills through board games, computer games, exercise sessions and more. After their game time, the three women joined the others in another room to dance to music, following the choreography on a video.
Stepping Stones clients also take trips around town for community engagement, Pritchett said. A favorite activity is a monthly day camp with the Rev. Ray Eure at Rich Acres Christian Church. Many of them get their nails done monthly at Mimi’s Spa.
At the YMCA they do line-dancing, chair aerobics and other exercises. During good weather they go for walks and to the park.
“Stepping Stones is important for this branch of the community because there’s not really” much in terms of opportunities, said Stuart Price, one of Stepping Stones’ first staff members. “One they’re through with school, they’re not able to continue … their education. … This is like a release to them.”
Price said he has learned a great deal through having an autistic older brother. “He likes to be included as much as possible in the community,” Price said. “There’s such an unlimited opportunity for them to be included and mingle with so-called ‘normal’ people and feel like they’re part of Martinsville or whatever community they’re in.”
The clients of Stepping Stone love to have visitors to the center, which is at 600 Northside Drive, and they also enjoy going out, he said.
Having special needs people out and active in the community isn’t just good for them: “It’s good for people to get a chance to see that they’re actually like everybody else,” Price said.
“If you look at it, everybody has some kind of special need.”
Best friends and their parents
Stepping Stones was started in the 1980s as a support group for parents of special needs children, founders Emily Roark and Rita Lawless said. “It was just a bunch of friends, really,” getting together to provide something for their special needs adult children to do after they aged out of the school system, Roark said.
Back then, area organizations which helped special needs adults were not equipped to handle the unique needs of their children, Lawless said.
“Stepping Stones provided a day support program where our adult children could receive one-on-one instruction as needed and participate in group activities with their peers. My son, Ray, thrived in this environment, as did others,” Lawless said.
The women’s sons, Joey Roark and Ray Lawless, were best friends, Rita Lawless said. She laughed when she recalled how their sons would shoo their mothers away if the women came to the center, even when they were helping with fundraising or providing support. “It was very comical to see us over there and have to run from them,” she said.
Joey Roark died in 2011 at the age of 43, and Ray Lawless died in 2017 at the age of 49. Both mothers remain active with Stepping Stones.
Finding a home
In the beginning they did a great deal of fundraising — “We sold hot dogs, hamburgers, did spaghetti dinners all over the county, sold raffle tickets” to get the center started, Roark said.
Then the late Lois Donegan and her husband, who attended First United Methodist Church in Fieldale, asked that church if it would host the group in its basement, Roark said.
The church agreed, and the parents hired Pritchett to be the director.
“She really got things going,” Roark said of Pritchett. “She got more people in, got a van and … hired more people” as staff.
Pritchett is “wonderful,” said Roark. “I don’t like to brag on her too much because I’m afraid somebody will steal her away. She really is good.”
Most clients’ time there is supported by Medicaid waiver funding. Two are through Piedmont Community Services, and one is through private pay, Pritchett said.
“As long as the original parents” are around, “we will be working, trying to add more money to the coffers” to purchase extra games and equipment to benefit the clients, Roark said. Their most recent form of fundraiser is golf tournaments, she said.
This year’s golf tournament will be April 26 at Oak Hill Country Club in Eden, N.C.. To participate, call Pritchett at 276-638-7676 or Sam Gamble at 276-638-3026.