Nine years ago, when Betty Brandt Rouse was in her first year at UNC, she thought she wanted to be a special education teacher. To explore that interest, she started volunteering at Reality Ministries, a community center in Durham for teens and adults with developmental disabilities. What she ended up walking into was a program that exists for much more: the creation of friendships.
On any given Monday night, Betty Brandt can be found with 80 “friends” – which is what both the participants and volunteers are called – enjoying dinner, singing songs, playing games and telling stories. Many of Betty Brandt’s friends have what the world considers disabilities, but at Reality, they are just different abilities.
“I have been coming to Reality Ministries for so long because it really is a space where everyone experiences belonging,” Betty Brandt says. “Relationships are formed around the idea of mutual dependency and mutual kinship.” To her, coming by the center every week is not just some volunteer job. “My perspective shifted quickly from the beginning,” she says. “I get to do this for my friends, and I am given as much. It is very powerful to witness what we all are learning here.”
Reality Ministries was started by husband and wife team Jeff and Susan McSwain as an outreach to help people learn that the deepest reality of life is God’s love in Jesus Christ. They quickly discovered that the greatest need in Durham was for people with developmental disabilities who had aged out of the public school system to have a place to go and things to do. Now individuals of all beliefs are part of Reality.
In their second year, they stumbled upon an old church on the corner of Lamond Avenue and North Gregson Street, just across from Durham School of the Arts, that was for sale. That became the Reality Center. “We have 153 participant friends with 138 volunteer friends in our day programs,” Susan, now the executive director, explains. “They are people of all abilities sharing their day together.”
Friends do Zumba, make soap, cook lunch together, all activities that facilitate the strengthening of friendship and the feeling of belonging. In the great room, friends in and out of wheelchairs are playing basketball. Another group is out front tending the garden. They greet visitors with enthusiasm, as they consider them all friends. “We are creating an inclusive community,” Susan says. “It is the mutuality of people being accepted for who they are.”
That sentiment is palpable at Reality Ministries. Soon, the community will be able to come and experience the joy of friends of all abilities, when the Reality Café opens on Fridays for lunch. Reality also holds an annual talent show, last year filling The Carolina Theatre with more than a thousand people enjoying the performances of Reality’s friends.
‘Created for Community’
For Betty Brandt, now an ESL teacher at Creekside Elementary School, she sums up what has kept her coming back to Reality week after week for so many years: “I have seen the actuality of being in relationships that transform your perspective to show we all need the same things and have the same desires,” she says. “We are all created for community.” Tearing up, she adds, “When you walk in here, you feel known and cared for. I can’t put it into words, but you feel it.”
All people of all abilities are loved and cared for – that is the Reality.