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By Robert Connors
Managing Editor 

Circle of Friends Program Growing to Fill Future Dreams

Group Will Purchase Westside Baptist Church to Replace Current Stuart Avenue Site

 

Last updated 4/5/2023 at 4:56pm

Robert Connors

The Circle of Friends will relocate from their long-time location on Stuart Avenue to the former Westside Baptist Church. The current building will be sold to help fund the purchase, but community support is sought.

A local charitable organization that provides a number of programs supporting local families and individuals with developmental disabilities is seeking community support to expand their efforts. Circle of Friends, a fixture of the Lake Wales community for over two decades, is planning to sell its current building on Stuart Avenue to expand their program through the purchase of a much larger facility.

The organization is working toward the purchase of the former Westside Baptist Church, a large campus at the corner of Lime Avenue and South Miami Street. The move will greatly increase the organization's available space to provide the needed community services.

The current location at 105 East Stuart Avenue is being offered for sale to help fund the purchase, according to Crystal Higbee, CEO and president of the program.

"We have to raise $1.1 million to purchase the building and property outright," Higbee said of the Westside property. "The owners of the property are willing to work with the Circle by allowing us to rent the building until we can raise the money for purchase. We are currently connecting with prospective donors and supporters to ask for...their financial support."

Created in 1999 with a mission to "equip, empower, and provide inclusion to individuals with intellectual and developmental differences," Circle of Friends purpose was "so that parents of disabled children would have a place where they and their children belonged," Higbee added.

It's "a place to share stories and resources, be encouraged, and see their children could grow into their full potential," Higbee told LakeWalesNews.net in a written statement. Higbee has served as executive director of the organization since 2020 after having been a volunteer a director with the group for several years.

"I felt the nudge to submit my resume for the position, even though it would mean leaving my long-time Medical career and would throw off my plans to run and fix nursing homes," Higbee said.

The group was the idea of Mertice Fehringer, who was motivated by her own experience raising a daughter who had intellectual and developmental disabilities, according to Higbee. The program grew from a single classroom at the IMPACT Church and was eventually given the present space by local resident Thomas Rumfelt in 1999.

The center offers a variety of volunteer opportunities for adults. Students are able to perform in dances and plays through their Overcomers Performing Arts Troop. They often perform their signature song "The Circle of Friends," according to Higbee. They also learn dance routines for the holidays and perform for civic clubs, churches, nursing homes, and community events, and provide public service where possible, such as collecting trash in public parks.

Future plans for the new site include a "Friends Village." Residents will be clients of the Proclaiming Our Potential (P.O.P.) day program. "They will have onsite supportive living staff who will be responsible for making sure daily activities are being done and that residents are keeping appointments, are eating properly, keeping up hygienic practices, and are in a stable emotional state," Higbee said.

The Circle of Friends operates with funds received through grants, donations, and fundraising events. The client tuition is insufficient to maintain the program due to the percentage of scholarship students in attendance.

"I am working towards becoming Medical Waiver Certified so the clients can attend using state funds instead of private funds, which would allow us to bill the state for the entire amount of tuition." Higbee said. "It costs $700.00 per month per student just to run the P.O.P. Program alone. Our students pay only $30 to $350.00 each per month depending on household income. The waiver would increase the monthly amount substantially to where the program can be operated and expanded."

The Circle offers the Reaching Hands Support Group on the third Friday of each month at 7:00 pm. Guest speakers are made available to assist families with learning about new resources and parents/caregivers get to share stories and make connections.

"The Circle has grown exponentially over the years," Higbee said, "and has outgrown the current building. What started out in 1999 with just a few disabled children has grown to serve 26 intellectually and developmentally disabled adults, doubling our enrolled students/clients in just two years."

Robert Connors

The Circle of Friends provides transportation for students, many of whom have profound learning disabilities. The program has been caring for a needy population for more than two decades, and has outgrown it current location downtown.

The program intends to "provide hope for the future for those living with disabilities." Higbee said. "It is a challenging task when you consider that housing is not affordable for our clients and their parents are at an age that they are crying out of fear and frustration that they do not know what will happen to their child when they die."

Community involvement is vital to the survival of the program, Higbee said. "If the members of our churches and community in general would consider (donating) $5.00 per week, or $20.00 per month to sponsor the Circle it would provide the financial support necessary to secure our resources now and for the future."

The group is offering bright green disability-awareness bracelets for $5.00 each, available online as well as in person. They allow the wearer to receive discounts from participating businesses. The bracelets are available at the Circle of Friends.

 

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