Communication Builds Our Community

New Leader at Circle of Friends Answered God's Call to Serve

Ministry Expands Programs for Adults with Disabilities

Crystal Higbee gave up a good job as a surgical tech to answer a special calling to become president of Circle of Friends Ministry.

Higbee admits like in the story of Jonah and the whale she resisted at first, challenging God to offer clear direction by having retiring ministry founder Mertice Kelly approach her directly about the job. Higbee started part-time in February and stepped out on faith in June to become the ministry's full-time leader.

In just a few short months Higbee has addressed the challenge of serving adults with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did she re-open with additional programs for about 10 day students, but Higbee developed online programs to expand the ministry's outreach.

"God laid that vision on my heart; He's opening doors," Higbee said.

The day program, called Proclaiming Our Potential, helps the students become more self-sufficient and master everyday tasks and social skills they need to function independently. With ages ranging from the 20s to mid-40s, the students have various developmental disabilities, but they are eager to learn.

"Our main goal is to treat them like adults. These are not children," Higbee said. "We're helping them to be independent as they can. Real life things, real world things, taught how to do these things, like how to manage a bank register, pump and pay for gas or shop at a grocery store."

Higbee said 46-year-old Mikey immediately excelled in culinary classes: "He may have down syndrome, but this man can bake me under the table. We got him his own chef hat with his name on it."

The Circle staff helped another student with a traumatic brain injury improve his reading skills so he could become eligible for a job at the Lake Wales Care Center, where he currently volunteers.

"They all have different goals. If we can make it happen, why not?" Higbee said.

Most students come to Circle of Friends after they age out of public school programs at age 22 and "have nowhere to be," Higbee said.

Students especially enjoy singing and other performing arts, and the online programs include virtual hikes, learning about various plants, and explorations of other countries and cultures. Higbee said: "They are never bored."

Tuition is $200 for virtual classes and $350 for in-person, but a majority of students are on scholarship. That makes fundraising an important part of Higbee's job. Letters have gone out to local businesses asking them to help sponsor student tuition. The online program has allowed circle to expand outside Polk County, Higbee said, "It's good that we're able to open up to a wider demographic."

Higbee said the pandemic caused the ministry to re-evaluate all of its revenue generating programs. The ministry closed its thrift shop and the rolling snack shack and took its gift shop in a new direction – offering in its Enhance Boutique health-related products such as essential oils, teas, sugar scrubs, body butter, aromatherapy and honey-based products.

"Our focus is on health and well-being, with homemade body products," Higbee said, noting the students are helping make and package the products, which also will be sold online.

Circle of Friends will offer a $15 spaghetti dinner from 5-6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 18, available for takeout at 105 E. Stuart Ave. in downtown Lake Wales. An interactive murder mystery dinner, set in the 1980s, is planned for Oct. 30 for up to 20 people. Cost is $30 per person, and ticketholders must be present for the meal since they will be part of the plot.

The ministry has been sprucing up its outdoor area and will begin offering finger sandwiches, goodies and specialty teas in its Secret Tea Garden by reservation only on Saturdays beginning Oct. 1. Furniture has been refurbished and plants added to attract more butterflies. Higbee said she is considering renting out the garden for events.

Higbee said she is committed to giving back to the community, which has been so supportive of Circle of Friends in the last 20 years.

Circle students are available to put on song and dance performances for community groups and they plan to volunteer in other ways, like wrapping presents for the Care Center and delivering cupcakes and thank you cards to local merchants. The ministry also hosts the Reaching Hands support group at 7 p.m. the third Friday of the month for caregivers.

It's a busy time as Circle of Friends continues to grow and change, but Higbee hasn't looked back: "If you trust God some way, you better trust Him all the way – it's all or nothing."

For more information or to purchase event tickets, call the office at 863-679-2507, email Higbee at [email protected] or visit the website at


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