BLOUNT COUNTY, Tenn. — In Blount County, a special group is focusing on inclusion and acceptance. It's the "Gateway of Independence," or Gate for short.
It's a day program that provides services to neurodiverse people and people with disabilities that live in Blount County.
Overall, it's a safe haven for people of all abilities and a place where they can be unapologetically themselves. Dance parties, games, clubs and community groups fill their days every Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Once people with special abilities graduate from school, parents are left to find a place that can fill in the gaps.
Not all available day programs work for every person with disabilities. That's why a local family started The Gate in 2004.
According to the program's website one current participant, Russell Hogsed, graduated from Maryville High School in the early 2000s. He has disabilities and he is not able to walk, talk or care for himself.
"His parents, Shirley and Frank Hogsed, along with two special educators, Jo Bennett and Liz Crawford Scott, were determined that Russell would not be left at home with a life of isolation," the website says.
This determination led to the creation of The Gate. Originally, there were 5 members. As of 2021, there are 68 participants.
"Families are so thankful for it because they have a place that their loved one can go to that they trust," said Executive Director Stephanie Livigni. "Their loved one is in a place that they're having fun, they're safe, they're being taken care of."
The program provides activities and community engagement every day during the regular school year.
Dance parties, a newspaper club, a cooking club and a Kiwanis action committee keep everyone very busy.
"Keeping our individuals active, keeping them interconnected with one another and with people in the community is keeping them healthier," Livigni said.
It's all about acceptance and inclusion at the end of the day. Participant Shellie Vance said that she agrees.
"When I'm here at The Gate, I'm surrounded by people who love me," Vance said. "I've never been to Disney World, but everybody says we're a lot happier than when you get to Disney World."
She's been coming to the program since 2008, and she said hugs and smiles are never in short supply at The Gate.
"No matter if you wake up in kind of an off mood when you get here that's just immediately lifted," Program Director Jessica Lewis said. "It's just a joyful place to be at and I think we can all agree around here that it just is just uplifting."
They aren't government-funded and rely on donations to stay afloat.
"If you ever want to volunteer or you just want to put a smile on your face, come visit us at The Gate because you will fall in love and you'll never want to leave," said Livigni.
The Gate has a fundraiser called "Tailgate for the Gate" on November 6.
If you would like to support, volunteer or apply for the program — you can head to gatewaytoindependence.org.