“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had and the best job I’ve ever had,” Jennifer Graves said of her role as EDGE program director.
Graves and I decided to meet at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in his office, and when I arrived, he got up from his desk, shook my hand, introduced himself, and sat down next to me in the guest chair. She answered my questions with a bright smile and in the first minute of our conversation I was amazed by her enthusiasm for the program.
Graves previously worked as a high school and high school counselor at the Briarcrest Christian School in Eads, Tennessee, where he started a program for students with learning disabilities. In 2014, during a dinner party with Anne Singleton, her former Union professor and Michelle Atkins, her friend and colleague, a question changed her life process.
“They said,‘ Hey Jennifer, we’re starting this program. Are you interested in coming and running it? ‘ and I remember looking at them and saying, “I’m a teacher! You don’t go in the middle of the year,” Graves said, and we both laughed. “Because I was in Briarcrest. I was absolutely happy at Briarcrest. “
But earlier that year, Graves decided that his motto would be “Believe and Obey.”
“There’s an old anthem here. I don’t know if you know it or not. ‘ She started singing, but stopped herself. “I’m not singing,” she said, and we laughed again. I later saw the hymn and was inspired by its message of defining God’s will and obeying Him unconditionally. I was so inspired by Graves ’story as I continued to listen.
“My husband told me, he said,‘ Jennifer, I don’t think it’s time for you to put your money where your mouth is and believe and obey? And if God told us I had to do this, I had to come here and do this program. So, we made that decision and I went to Briarcrest and talked to the director and he and I cried. And I told him that I really felt that God wanted me to do this. ”
Along with Graves, her husband and children are graduates of Union University. One thing he knew was that if the EDGE program was everywhere, it should be in the Union.
“The union students are kind. Union students are usually welcome. ”Graves said. “Are they perfect? No. Are they all kind? No. But these students need to grow up and they need to learn. And I couldn’t find a better place than here at Union University. I think this program is incredibly important because having it’s on college campus, future employers are coming along with our EDGE students. And they’re not afraid. ”
In our interview, the word “fear” was repeated several times. One thing I learned from talking to Graves is that she tries to be nothing but scared. After all, the last verse of the hymn “Believe and obey” says, “Never be afraid.”
I asked Graves about the difference between running a program in Briarcrest to study disability and running an EDGE program that specializes in helping students with intellectual disabilities.
“Perhaps the biggest difference is that this is housing,” Graves said. “It’s 24/7 and I don’t think you can say anything or do anything that prepares you for day work. Lack of learning means that these students learn differently. Students with intellectual disabilities struggle with learning. It’s a completely different situation to prepare a student with a mental disability to live on campus than to help someone in their studies. “
However, despite the stark differences between his previous responsibilities and his current responsibilities, Graves stressed that seeing how the EDGE program affects everyone involved is worth it. She told me how much she loves to see online photos of Union graduates having an EDGE student at their wedding. She said that is the goal of the EDGE program.
“I don’t know about you, but I think we’re afraid of something else,” Graves said. “And a lot of people think about people who aren’t like them, behave like them or have the same skills, predict or think badly. I think it’s really, really important that we show people that we we are not more alike. ”
“I lead Brooke Stamps and this is the most valuable experience I have had in the Alliance,” said Allison Eichenlaub, a primary education teacher and EDGE coach. “It’s definitely hard and arduous at times, but looking back at how far Brooke has come, proves what this program really is. They’re all about who they are and what they’re like when they’re in college. They are the happiest people in the world, and they enjoy the little things. They teach me to appreciate the simplest things in life. ”
“I really believe this is a situation I’ve been blessed with,” Graves said. “I’m grateful. And every day, when I come to work, I know that every day will be different and will always disappear along the way and there will be problems, but we believe and obey and try to deal with our work. students with respect and to our mentors and other Alliance students in understanding disabilities and what they are and how we can communicate with them.
Photo by Layla Al-Hagal