Methodist nonprofit pioneer honored
Jobs, companionships, homes and hobbies are some of the basic aspects of life that many take for granted. But for some with intellectual and developmental disabilities, those things can be difficult to achieve as they grow older.
Thanks to the help of a few passionate pioneers and the Western Conference of the United Methodist Church, hundreds of disabled people have found all the basic needs for a happy life through a nonprofit called UMAR.
UMAR is dedicated to promoting inclusion, independence and growth for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities through housing and enrichment opportunities.
Last month, UMAR celebrated its 30-year anniversary by thanking its first founding member, Lake Junaluska resident Margaret McCleskey.
As the wife of Bishop Lawrence McCleskey, she attended annual conferences with the Methodist Church, meeting hundreds of people along the way. It was during the time of one of those conferences when she first realized a gap in resources for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“I knew many of them and their families personally and we all wondered and were concerned that if their parents became ill or died, what would happen to these individuals?”
Recognizing that need, McCleskey eventually became a founder and pioneering spirit of UMAR. Starting off in 1983 with one group home in High Point, the nonprofit has grown over the years to add 23 more group homes, nine apartments, two art centers, vocational services and day programs across the state.
Without McCleskey, UMAR simple wouldn't exist today, said Ann Church, president and CEO of UMAR.
"She is what I would call a steel magnolia — she's the essence of what a southern lady with smarts and a good cause can do," Church said. "We could all hope to be half the woman she is."
Without the help of UMAR services, many adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities wouldn't have homes or jobs. While government resources abound for children and teens with disabilities, those resources diminish as they grow older.
Sue Ensley is an example of just one of the hundreds of lives that have been touched by McCleskey’s cause.
At 66 years old, Ensley has been living in UMAR housing in Hayesville for 16 years. She attended the recent award ceremony to honor McCleskey, passing out programs and hugs to everyone who walked through the doors.
Ensley’s mother passed away in 1991 followed by her grandmother shortly thereafter, both of whom were her caretakers and closest companions. Though no one could ever replace what those women were in her life, UMAR helped fill her needs when it came to life’s basic necessities.
“Without UMAR my life would be zero,” Ensley said.
With a stack of medals draping her neck from her achievements in the Special Olympics, Ensley explained why.
“I’d be missing out on my friends and my job and my whole life,” she said.
Through UMAR, Ensley was able to get an office job five days a week and make plenty of new friends that she now considers family.
And just like everyone else associated with UMAR, Ensley can’t speak highly enough of McCleskey.
“She is a wonderful, good person and friend. She’s given me a wonderful life,” Ensley said.
While McCleskey is no longer a paid employee of UMAR, her efforts have had a lasting impression — one that she hopes will continue long after she is gone.
"To me, these people are my friends — they aren't just a label. I just wanted to be an instrument in helping to give the personification to something that was really just an idea. It's all about them, not about me," McCleskey said.