In 1981 in Brandon, Mississippi, a small group of six families met with one common vision in mind—to develop a unique program that increased the quality of life physically, spiritually, intellectually, and mentally for adults with special needs. At that time no such program existed, and many families who had children born with special needs were often urged to institutionalize. For these six families, they believed differently and were passionate about setting a new standard in special needs care. Their vision birthed a unique community and home known as The Mustard Seed.
Built to serve the adult special needs population, The Mustard Seed is comprised of many programs, staff, and volunteers that all work together to make the lives of their 42 Seedsters more fulfilled.
Seedsters, which was a term initially started by one of the Seedsters, simply refers to all the adults who attend The Mustard Seed. This term came about in the same way that those who attend universities affiliate themselves with their university or organization. In the same way that we might call someone a “rebel,” “bulldog,” or “eagle,” Seedsters was a name created out of endearment that signifies how The Mustard Seed has become an extension of the Seedster’s daily lives and growing, dynamic, and charming personalities.
THE BELLS OF FAITH
The Bells of Faith, a hand bell choir composed of talented Seedsters that have expressed interest in performing, was one of the first programs that birthed from The Mustard Seed. In 1981, initially created as a tool to help further integrate those with special needs into our community, the Bells of Faith choir introduced a new sound with a technique specifically created for them by music therapists from William Carey College.
The original group of parents who created The Mustard Seed hired Debbie Burnham as the Music Director for the Bells of Faith, a role in which she has faithfully served in now for 30 years.
“The Bells of Faith has always been a part-time job with full-time success,” Debbie said. “It has been great because the Seedsters perform at many businesses and churches throughout the year, and the Bells of Faith brings so much awareness to the abilities and talents of the special needs community while helping to get these Seedsters out and involved in their community.”
Although the ages of ringers may range anywhere from 21 to 76 years old, several of the members of the Bells of Faith have performed since the choir’s beginning. Deeply loved by the community, The Bells of Faith choir has also spurned unknown talents by the Seedsters who perform.
“We’ve really seen the participants blossom; they gain a sense of self-esteem by performing, and it helps them to feel like they are a part of a group,” said Del Harrington, the Executive Director at The Mustard Seed. “To see some step up and take leadership roles, to see veteran performers mentor newcomers, and to see others use their talents to help set up or take down the stage for performances is really amazing. With the Seedsters, it’s the simple things that matter, and every day they put things into perspective for me and many others.”
MUSTARD SEED UNIVERSITY
On any given day, if you were to walk into the activity center at The Mustard Seed, you would be greeted by a multitude of activity. You might find Jerry sitting on the porch singing Justin Bieber songs on the karaoke machine as joyfully as he could, Lindsay reading her knock-knock joke books to prepare for her famous “joke of the day,” Mr. Bill painting his signature hearts- whom he refers to as his valentines- on ceramics, or many Seedsters engaging in different classes.
Mustard Seed University started in 2013 as many Seedsters began to express an interest in learning about different topics. Like their peers, siblings, and friends without disabilities, they are aware that life, for many of us, includes lifelong learning. It is dynamic and changing, and so are the Seedsters. After the Seedsters expressed this interest to staff, Mustard Seed University was born. In the almost six years since Mustard Seed University began, there have been hundreds of classes taught.
Ranging from Spanish, French, money management, cooking, sign language, history, Biblical science, nature, photography, Pilates, gardening, and even topics like learning about country music history or fashion throughout the decades, there are always multiple classes taking place on any given day. Each class meets weekly for a semester, which is typically composed of 8 weeks, and Seedsters are allowed to pick what classes they want to take and how many they’d like to take.
At the end of each semester, graduation ceremonies are held where Seedsters get awarded certificates of recognition and are celebrated for their effort and abilities. In addition to fostering independence by giving them choices, these classes also boost the Seedsters self esteem and quality of life by enriching them in ways that extend beyond the classroom itself.
THE GIFT SHOP
Because The Mustard Seed is a private, Christian non-profit, they do not receive any state or federal government funding. With this in mind, they have had to get creative over the years to help raise the funds needed to operate without having to pass that additional expense back to the Seedster’s families. One way they have successfully done this is through sales in their on-site gift shop.
Each Seedster takes part in the art program at The Mustard Seed, where they paint and mold handcrafted, one-of-a-kind, ceramic pieces that are later displayed and sold in the gift shop. One step into the gift shop and your eye is immediately drawn to eye-popping colors, vibrant textures, and pictures of the Seedsters that adorn the walls.
Like the Seedsters themselves, their artwork isn’t just beautiful on the outside–it comes with a story and is a reflection of their own bold and beautiful personalities. Although each Seedster partakes in the art program, they each go at their own pace and are always encouraged to pursue the interests they love most. For some Seedsters, like Will Terry, they’d rather paint than do just about anything. For others, like Benny Baxter who is The Mustard Seed’s social butterfly, they can paint at their own pace and pursue other interests and daily activities.
The sales from the gift shop help The Mustard Seed to self-sustain their ministry as annual gift shop revenue contributes to 25% of The Mustard Seed’s overall yearly budget. Because 91 cents of every dollar is returned directly back to the Seedster’s program and not spent on administrative or other costs, gift shop sales are essential to allowing The Mustard Seed to continue it’s ministry at the lowest cost possible to the Seedster’s family members.
Nineteen adults, comprised of nine men and 10 women, currently live at The Mustard Seed in their state-of-the-art men’s and women’s group home. Both homes, which are staffed by a house parent, help the Seedsters gain independence in a safe environment while also having their needs met.
For all of the Seedsters that live on campus, they view their residency in the group homes as a source of pride and something that makes them feel like more of an adult. While The Mustard Seed never wants to replace the integral role that Seedster’s families play in their lives, they aim to use the residential facilities as a tool that comes alongside these families to provide an experience that the Seedsters might not have otherwise.
“Our residents get to experience some of the independence a college student has away from home,” said Sam Clark, Men’s Group Home Parent at The Mustard Seed. “They also must be considerate of everyone living in the group home, which can be a big challenge and provide room to grow as an individual. I love these guys like they are my own, and we are just trying to live out the example Jesus Christ gave us in regards to how we should love others here.”
Mandy Sisson, Communications Director at The Mustard Seed, echoed Sam’s thoughts when she said, “Sarah has been a resident of the women’s group home for years now, and I remember when she told me that she wanted to live here, in her “dorm room,” just like her twin sister (who was off at college at the time) did. For Sarah, living here and “going off to school” is something that helped her feel like she was experiencing the same things others her age were.”
After you turn 18, the ability to go off to college and launch yourself independently into the world–to make basic choices in regards to your future, like the classes you want to take or the major you want to choose–is almost viewed today as a rite of passage for graduating high school seniors. However, it’s easy to forget that not all graduating students will experience this, especially those in the special needs community who, many times, don’t feel like they have any control over their future plans, which include the desire to live on their own at some point. Many Seedsters deeply desire the “dorm life” experience, but few had the ability to attain it before. Now, with the addition and help of the group homes on campus, The Mustard Seed is able to mimic the college experience for the Seedsters, which includes classes in Mustard Seed University and a safe, on-site living environment.
Now, 37 years after it’s beginning, the lives of all who come through the doors of The Mustard Seed are forever impacted simply because a few people believed in a vision that took a stand for those who couldn’t stand for themselves. Because of that, the Mustard Seed is a lot of things: it’s a home, a day program, a work program, a school, and—perhaps most importantly—a family.
The Mustard Seed gift shop is open Monday-Friday 9am-4pm and Saturdays 10am-3pm. Visit www.mustardseedinc.org for more information.