StarfireU celebrates Cincinnati Community

Starfire Member Nikki Booker (center) with Tina Manchise (Left) and Tara Lindsey Gordon of The Requiem Project: The Emery, after a reading of Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community. Photo: Starfire.

Jeni Jenkins, Streetvibes Staff Writer

“And if I can take part in it by transforming my own consciousness, then someone else’s, I’m happy to do it.”  The late comedian and social critic Bill Hicks spoke these moving words during one of his comedy routines.  We will never know whether he recognized that this idea was truly transformative in and of itself—the notion of “it” as something bigger then oneself and ones’ immediate surroundings and by being part of the “it” you are transformed through the process, and through that experience you transform others.  There are often various shades of grey when it comes to judging truly transformative ideas, however, sometimes they stand out.

One local organization is not only transforming lives; they are transforming whole communities through an innovative new model that is both unassuming and provocative. Thanks to innovative efforts by its members, staff and Board, Starfire Council of Greater Cincinnati is on the cutting edge of creating ways to enable individuals with disabilities towards becoming active members of their communities.

After years of working with individuals with disabilities through traditional models of getting people with disabilities together and taking them on outings and doing “fun stuff”, the Starfire team started talking. Through talking they discovered that over and over people with disabilities are segregated and lumped together with other people with disabilities and they become associated merely by circumstance as opposed to by choice. According to Executive Director Tim Vogt, as a result, “people with disabilities have an imbalanced life when it comes to their relationships.” In an effort to decrease the segregation, while being careful not to discredit the genuine relationships that develop by bringing people with disabilities together, Starfire mapped out a working 4 year model designed to support Starfire members as they move towards genuine integration into their communities while simultaneously discovering their passions, dreams, and talents.

At the center of this model is StarfireU, a four-year program for young adults ages 21-30. Each year is a stepping-stone towards the next, building on the previous years experiences. In year one, members explore their communities and explore things that they haven’t been exposed to prior. Year two, involves creating a path towards their future with the central question “What is the legacy you want to leave? “ Year three is about building networks and connecting people based on their interests and passions. And the final fourth year involves capstone projects- where members take their broad interests, narrow them down and brainstorm to work on a community project together with community friends and partners.

Now in its fourth year, the eighteen graduating seniors have worked diligently to take their passions and transform them into community-oriented projects.  A play, a fashion show, a dog walk, a musical performance and a car show are among the many projects that are taking place throughout Greater Cincinnati in the coming months. Each project is unique and breaks down the barriers between those who have disabilities and those who don’t. According to Vogt, “The label of ‘disability’ is one imposed upon, instead of chosen by people. And it often creates a lot of unnecessary barriers to the things that make up a good life: friends, dignity, and ways people can give to others. These young people are painting a new picture of what can happen when we include and value all citizens. They’re helping build a more vibrant Cincinnati for all of us.”

The production of “Welcome Home: The Waddie Welcome Story” a play based on the book “Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community” by Tom Kohler and Susan Earl, is the passion of Nikki Booker who first read the story three years ago. “At first glance I thought that it was just an ordinary book. The more I read it, the more it became a part of me; so much so that I wanted to make a play out of it. I think this story is going to inspire, change people’s mindsets, and teach people that you can take ordinary people and do extraordinary things.” The production that will take place May 12th at the Emery Theatre, involved numerous community partners, including playwright Catie O’Keefe, Aaron Kent of DIY Printing and Tina Manchise and Tara Lindsey Gordon of The Requiem Project: The Emery.

Jamie Hoskins, fourth year senior, chose her project out of her love for clothes. Her goal is to produce the Urban Glam Fashion show on June 16at the Tower Place Mall- New American Art Gallery.  Her community connections include a committee composed of Hollywood and Ty from Dynamite Attractions- presents that’s Hollywood as well as Kai Wiley from Sheek and Black Styling- who will help dress and style and get different vendors involved.  This project involves casting 12 models and dressing them in fashions from Cincinnati shops. For Hoskins, this capstone is helping her with her career. She would like to continue producing fashion shows in future.

Starfire Member Kathleen Sheil stands in front of the 20th Century Theatre for Starfire’s Annual Meeting, an event that she planned as her Senior Capstone Project. Photo: Starfire.

Kathleen Sheil’s capstone was planning Starfire’s Annual Meeting. Her process started because she didn’t know how to put on an event. She says she became passionate “after seeing a close friend who was an event planner.” She learned how to write a budget, find an event location, select food, and pick awards. She also had committee at her disposal to help her plan. This event took place on Monday April 16th at the 20thCentury theatre. Now she is in the process of planning her first baby shower for a friend.

These projects involve the commitment of the dedicated Starfire staff. For Leah Addison, one of the four Capstone Assistants, the goal is  “to connect members with people of their community who have similar interests, and get them more involved with people who enjoy the same things.”  Addison, who has worked at Starfire since 2010 views the project as  “interesting and new…we are setting the bar for years to come.“

Capstone Assistant and Community Coordinator Sarah Buffie, believes in the power of the process, “we work towards a common goal, we are brought together based on interests and passions and a commitment to a shared purpose. That shared purpose brings us together and starts to build a more cohesive community– the capstones are about relationship building. There is space before and after for deeper connections- and for casual conversations where we learn from and about one another.

Brandon Black, Capstone Assistant to four members, views the capstone projects as “smoke and mirrors.” He say’s it is “the magician’s job is to wow the crowd and manipulate the senses to entertain the audience. When I think of each member as this magician with tricks up their sleeve- it’s just them. The capstone is the smoke and mirror and the illusions that distract people from the things that they don’t have in common so the real magic can be experienced and felt.  At the end of the day we are all people and it’s them connecting with individuals members on some level producing a hint of laughter or astonishment. Capstones allow people to shine through the smoke and mirrors.”

Aaron Kent of DIY Printing, one of the many community partners, has assisted in a mural project by Krista Brinkmeyer and printed the posters for Welcome Home. Kent has loved the opportunity to work with and meet new people. He is “both humbled and honored to be part of something so great“ and sees these new-formed bonds as “part of the experience he tries to bring to DIY.” “Nikki and Krista were part of the studio experience and they had an awesome time printing.” Kent says he’s “flying high.”

Starfire Member Krista Brinkmeyer with Aaron Kent of DIY Printing. Photo: Starfire.

While a few projects have already taken place, the next two months are filled with opportunities for the community to come together and be part of this transformative experience.