Published on March 19, 2018 by Sara Roman  
Lindy Cleveland

Degree/Year:  Bachelor of Arts in Human Development and Family Life Education, 2014

Hometown: Birmingham, AL 

Current Position: Founder, Executive Director of Unless U 

Describe your journey from Samford to your current position: After graduating from Samford in 2014, I moved back home to begin the next chapter of my life. At age 22 and single, God continued to stir in my heart the vision of His plans for me, and it was the perfect time in life to run with reckless abandon toward a lifelong dream. My parents and grandparents all started their own businesses, so taking risks, stepping out in faith, preparing for failure and successes through an entrepreneurial adventure run deep in my family. I prayed for God’s guidance and sought wise counsel from professors, friends and ministry leaders. Slowly the dream began to take shape!

In August 2014, I began a pilot program with five students in my parent’s playroom that I turned into a classroom. Over the next two months, I met with lawyers, CPA’s, prospective families, curriculum specialists and our home church about leasing space.  In November 2014, with ten students standing by my side for the ribbon cutting, I officially opened the doors of Unless U, a non-profit continuing education program for adults with special needs. Today we have grown to 50 students and 11 staff members. We receive inquiries weekly from prospective families desiring services. 

Unless U offers a “college-like atmosphere” that is age and ability respectful, with classes in math, science, language arts, social studies, Bible study, life skills, social skills, technology and fine arts. It has been an amazing, life-changing experience.  God has truly blessed the establishment and continued growth of Unless U, and with the support of our families, friends, and charitable giving, Unless U is currently in the process of selecting property to build a building. 

Did you always know this is what you’d like to do? I always knew that I wanted to work with individuals with intellectual disabilities, but I wasn't exactly sure how it would take shape as a career.  My brother, Jordan, is 31 years old, and he has Down Syndrome. Once Jordan completed high school, our family struggled with the perfect “next step” for him. I quickly realized that this was a dilemma that many families face. While some adults with less limitations may be able to work a part time or full time job, many others are on waiting lists for community services, such as day programs, recreational programs, or job skill workshops.

Because of how this has affected my family, this dream for a solution began to stir in my heart during my time at Samford. I wanted to create a place where adults with developmental disabilities are not seen through the lens of their disability but rather through what they offer their community. Families have to make sacrifices with their finances, schedules, transportation, and time in order to find ways to enhance and enrich the lives of their young adult. Most parents must continue to work, forcing them to leave their adult child at home alone, or hire full time nannies, or even rely on family and friends to help meet their unique needs. There is no “empty nest” for parents of adults with intellectual disabilities. 

How did Samford prepare you for your career? One of the awesome things about being an HDFE major is you have the freedom to mold the major to fit your desired career.  I was able to gear all of my research and practicums toward adults with developmental disabilities. One of the most beneficial classes for me was the Non-Profit and Grant Writing class. In this class, I was able to learn about the non-profit world, as well as build Unless U as a class project. My professor knew that Unless U was more than a class project for me and he spent extra time working with me on all the foundational steps needed to truly start a non-profit. Getting started in building anything from the ground up is the hardest part of the process.  Samford gave me experiences, knowledge, resources and confidence that I needed in order to step out in faith and open Unless U. 

What advice do you have for current HDFE students? My advice would be to take advantage of the opportunities you have in this major to explore many different fields and figure out exactly what you are passionate about, and then use the freedom of this major to help learn as much as you can while in the safe haven of college. College is about understanding your own personal passions, strengths, weaknesses, while developing a strong work ethic. Use your time to practice applying what you learn in class in the real world. Get involved with volunteering in areas that appeal to you. Our students at Unless U love having volunteers from Samford! Two of our best volunteers are nursing majors, so don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone while in college. Don’t be afraid to try and fail, because eventually you will try and succeed. HDFE gave me the opportunity to learn so much about the non-profit world, and opportunities to apply that knowledge before graduation. Not all majors and not all schools allow you that flexibility.