NORMAN — Ten years ago, a nonprofit organization started in a single room. It was January 2003 and the new activity center known as Among Friends had six disabled adults participating.
In September 2010, Among Friends expanded its space in the Community Services Building, 1183 E. Main St. in Norman, to 4,000 square feet. This newer space is fully handicap accessible, accommodates 52 active members and serves 32 family caregivers. The 2010 expansion included a kitchen, large game/meal area, large movie room, an activity room with an outside courtyard area, a craft room, offices and a utility room.
“We started with six clients over at the First Baptist Church Common Ground area. We started meeting one or to days a week,” Executive Director Cathe Fox told The Transcript in a 2011 interview. “We realized there was a lot of people that didn’t qualify for the different programs that were already here. And they were just sitting at home very bored, suffering from depression and isolation. We’re a social outlet for them.”
Today, Fox said that need and the organization’s mission has not changed.
“We provide a place for the disabled adult population to come each day to make friends, to develop skills and to build self-reliance and as much independence as possible,” Fox said.
Ironically, this hope-bestowing organization grew out of the seed of disaster.
In 1997, Fox’s teenage daughter sustained a traumatic brain injury as a result of a motor vehicle accident. Jennifer Fox was left with severe disabilities that would confine her to a wheelchair for life.
Like many mothers, Cathe Fox became Jennifer's primary caregiver. Following Jennifer’s graduation from Norman North High School in 2002, Cathe Fox realized there was no place for Jennifer to spend her days in Norman.
In 2003, Cathe and Jennifer Fox joined other mothers and their adult children with disabilities and started meeting in the Common Ground building of the First Baptist Church, where the Fox family are members.
The group got together at the church a couple of days a week to “play games, do some craft projects, listen to music and talk about what was going on in their lives. Once a week, they would all walk over to the First Baptist Church Family Life Center to go bowling and have lunch together,” according to the organization’s website.
Word spread. In 2005, Among Friends received a donation from the Oklahoma Cerebral Palsy organization.
By that time, it had grown to “about a dozen clients” and operations moved to the Community Services Building, where it expanded the activity center space to 1,900 square feet. Client capacity went to 25 clients, aides and volunteers with this move.
In 2006, Among Friends applied to the Norman United Way and was awarded funds from the 2007 campaign. The client list included more than 35 adults who had made their way to the support agency primarily by word of mouth, with no formal referral network in place at that time.
“We do charge a small membership fee of $50 a month,” Cathe Fox said. “We do fundraising and get grants. We’ve had great support from the community all through the years.”
Among Friends serves a population of formerly invisible people within society, but those people have been emerging from the shadows and institutions where many once were forced to live.
“We’re 15 years out with Jennifer’s accident and she has far exceeded what was expected of her at the time,” Cathe Fox said. “I truly believe that it’s because she has a place that she looks forward to going. She has goals. She stays active, and she continues to improve little by little each day, as all of our clients show improvement.”
Among Friends serves people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities.
“We’ve just started, this year, an exercise program,” she said.
With funding from grants, Among Friends was able to purchase equipment designed to meet the special needs of people in wheelchairs and with partial paralysis to implement the exercise program.
“We’ve been seeing dramatic results,” Cathe Fox said.
In addition to added strength and weight loss, those benefits include improved cognitive ability and happier clientele who feel more independent and in charge of their destinies.
“We just developed that program this year,” she said. “It just shows there are so many things they can do.”
Nobody wants to suffer the type of tragedy that hit the Fox family with Jennifer’s accident, but Jennifer Fox and her family have turned that suffering into good.
“A lot of people don’t know what their destiny is,” Cathe Fox said. “I truly believe I’ve found my destiny.”
On Tuesday, Norman Mayor Cindy Rosenthal will declare Jan. 21 as Among Friends Day in the city of Norman and commend and congratulate Among Friends “for providing 10 years of service to disabled adults and their families,” according to city staff reports.