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That literature turned out to be horribly outdated, recommending institutionalization for mentally disabled children.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 Simpson’s family.

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 disabled kids.”

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 playground.

“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.”