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'Real Communities' looking to establish roots in Albany

People enter the Forsyth Farmers’ Market in Savannah.

People enter the Forsyth Farmers’ Market in Savannah.

ALBANY, Ga. -- Started in 2009 by the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD), the Real Communities initiative is a grassroots enterprise that seeks to include all walks of life from a specific community aiming to work toward change through various projects.

That initiative is looking to onboard several new communities in the coming months, including Albany.

While GCDD actively assists communities in achieving a project's goals, the actual projects are chosen by the community members themselves -- and will depend on what the needs and wishes are for that specific community. There is a list of potential projects generated, and once there is an idea of how much revenue there is to work with, the initiative is taken from there -- and while there is a standard process for getting it started, each community is different.

One project in Macon, for example, has sought to revive a church in the downtown area. Another project in Fitzgerald is exploring models for helping to offset the transportation problems the city's residents face.

Among those who have seen the project come to fruition over the past four years is

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Tom Seegmueller

Tom Seegmueller, who until recently, was among those who represented Southwest Georgia on the council for roughly a decade.

"The people are the key decision-makers," he said. "This is really based on strength and what the community wants to see. (The people) all work together and interact...most of the projects have been very diverse.

"There are other ways to solve problems than just getting state and federal grants."

The fact that Real Communities is such a team concept is what has ensured its sustainability -- and why it can work anywhere, including Albany, Seegmueller said.

"Without a doubt (it has the potential to work in Albany), he said. "It was so outside the box, it took awhile to wrap our minds around it -- but it eventually became a model for the council on everything. It is so flexible and addresses so many needs."

A GRASSROOTS EFFORT

In order to educate area key leaders on the initiative, a meeting was held June 17 at the Albany Advocacy Resource Center facility at 3005 Old Dawson Road. Among those in attendance was Teresa Heard, director of clinical services for Easter Seals Southern Georgia and a GCDD council member.

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Teresa Heard

"I thought this was a wonderful idea, especially in Southwest Georgia," she said. "It is a way to access those living in a community. It is a grassroots effort to get started on a ground level."

The primary role of Easter Seals in the initiative -- an organization that works specifically with children, adults and families with disabilities or special needs -- is to help get the word out.

From Heard's frame of mind, while the initiative does seek to include those with developmental disabilities in community projects, that population is not the main focus.

"I think a lot of the individuals who receive funding have had fantastic ideas," she said. "...(They) wanted to be inclusive of all people. It is not disability focused; it is community focused."

Heard's dream for the initiative, once established in Albany, is to educate people on the roles everyone can maintain in making society a better place.

"Just because they have a unique ability, it doesn't mean they can't have access to certain things," she said. "Once they see the untapped assets (among) the clients I serve...it is just a matter of getting people to see varied abilities.

"It will grow new options for individuals here."

In order to get the Albany area to embrace it, it will likely take a few individuals with unique mindsets and interests to get it going, Heard said.

"It is such an out-of-the-box idea, it will take those kinds of individuals," she said. "It takes someone who has added interest, a grassroots individual. There are people out there that think that way. It's just a matter of bringing them to the table.

"If something like this gained ground (in Albany), it would be something we would be involved in. It could open up doors for a lot of individuals."

'LITTLE GREEN WAGON'

In Savannah, the Forsyth Farmers' Market was established to address food access issues and provide all members of the community with a welcoming and inclusive place to purchase regional produce -- with market organizers striving for diversity amongst vendors, shoppers, volunteers and educators.

As a participant in Real Communities, the market has worked to serve as a building block to create a means of developing a more hospitable neighborhood and provide opportunities for connection and contribution for people with and without disabilities.

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Teri Schell

Teri Schell, the market's co-founder and coordinator, said that incorporating the initiative into the market has made a significant difference.

"What we decided to do was focus on education projects at the market that anyone could participate in," she said. "We work hard to invite all kinds of people over."

Through the "Little Green Wagon," those at the market have been helping children plant seeds. The plants are kept in the garden until they are ready to go home, and all the activity takes place in the "Mixed Greens" tent located right in front of the market.

"It seems simple, but just seeing a variety of people changes things," Schell said. "It changes perception.

"We are not overt about it. We don't have a sign saying we are working with people with disabilities. We don't talk about it in the sense that we are helping just one person."

The market coordinates the initiative, Schell said, through a core group that meets to plan events -- which has grown over the two market seasons since it onboarded Real Communities.

"We do everything together with each other, with and without disabilities," she said. "We think it (the initiative's impact on the community) will grow, because it has become a part of our culture. I don't see it ending anytime soon."

LEARNING NEW PERSPECTIVES

Aside from solving food access problems, the idea behind bringing on the initiative, Schell said, was to promote the intentional invitation of people from all around -- regardless of their circumstances -- rather than leave them on the sidelines.

"There are a lot of people who are left out of community life -- not just those with developmental disabilities, but significant life events," she said. "The intentional invitation of people is important. The more we involve people, I think it enriches everyone.

"We've learned new perspectives. We've learned how to see the world from (the perspective) of those who see it differently ... the most significant thing I've learned is that everyone has a role to play and a gift to give."

After seeing the changes that have taken place just in her market, Schell said -- even without knowing much about the circumstances of communities outside of Savannah -- that the initiative is something that could work anywhere.

"Every community has somebody or a group of people that don't have support in the community for a number of reasons," she said.

With the application process wrapping up this week, officials with the GCDD say they will be contacting interested organizations throughout the summer from the areas it is looking to bring in to plan the implementation of Real Communities into the applicants' core missions.

For more information on the initiative, visit http://www.gcdd.org/real-communities/