When Tonia Simpson’s nephew Ian was diagnosed with Down
syndrome shortly after his birth in 1986, her tight-knit family
felt alone and unprepared.
“The doctor came into my sister’s room and just said,
‘The child has Down syndrome, here are some
pamphlets,’” recalls Simpson, who is president of
Pool & Patio Center in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
That literature turned out to be horribly outdated, recommending
institutionalization for mentally disabled children.
“You never think this kind of thing will happen to
you,” she says. “But my sister started doing a lot of
research, and found Rise.”
Rise is a
unique preschool program at the University of Alabama that serves
children with special needs with the aim of helping them enter
regular grade schools. The program has shaped the lives of
Rise began in 1974 as a one-room facility with a tiny budget. In
1990, celebrated football coach Gene Stallings joined Alabama
— his son John Mark was also born with Down syndrome —
and the passion and attention Stallings brought to the cause helped
Rise become the well-known program it is today.
The preschool now is housed in a six-classroom, state-of-the-art
section of the university’s Stallings Center.
Rise was one of the first institutions to embrace a concept called
“reverse-mainstreaming,” whereby normally developing
children are integrated with peers that have mental or physical
limitations. If implemented correctly, the interactions can help
both groups thrive.
Ian’s younger sister eventually became one of the first
reverse-mainstream students to join. And later, Simpson’s own
children followed in their cousins’ footsteps, volunteering
at Rise throughout their school years.
“The children without handicaps are used to teach the ones
that have disabilities,” Simpson says. “Since kids have
a tendency to mimic what they see, it gives the [challenged]
children more encouragement to color, use Play Doh, that sort of
thing. And the reverse-mainstreamers learn just as much from the
Because of the early exposure to differently abled peers, typically
at 18 months, reverse-mainstream Rise students don’t see the
other children as strange. Simpson remembers a classmate of her
now-grown daughter who had to wear supportive braces on her legs.
Rather than being confused or scared, her daughter simply wanted a
set of her own.
“Her main issue was jealousy,” Simpson says. “She
wanted a pair for her birthday!”
Today, Ian is in his twenties and works at Rise, while Simpson and
her sister raise funds for the program.
“We always sponsor a hole at the annual golf tournament and
talk about the cause with our customers,” Simpson says.
“We chose Rise a long time ago as the only program we would
sponsor, so we could give it our all.”
In this economy, Simpson can’t always contribute monetarily.
However, she says there are many other ways that individuals and
companies can help.
Pool & Patio Center doesn’t discriminate in their hiring,
and once employed a man with Down syndrome. Simpson’s husband
also lends a hand to Rise, assisting in the construction of its
“Ian is high-functioning because we were able to give him an
early start,” Simpson says. “Had we not had Rise, I
don’t know. We were a close family before he came along, but
now he really is what holds us together. I don’t see [my work
with Rise] as helping somebody else. My children are who they are
because they got to go there. This cause is a part of me.”