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By Adrianna Cole
Pictured: CREATE at Catapult, Gillian Fazio
All of our CityMakers are driven individuals who “never, never give up”, but our March CityMaker made that her organization’s slogan.
Mickie Bower Brown is proud to say she’s called Lakeland home for a quarter of a century. She fell in love with the uniqueness, shops, and restaurants downtown. Her husband, Gary, retired last August after 38 years as an CRNA (Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist) but still fills in from time to time when needed.
Mickie is one of the founders of Noah’s Ark, an organization here in Lakeland committed to empowering individuals with developmental disabilities by providing or facilitating employment and social opportunities, as well as affordable housing. With Gary by her side, they’ve done everything together, from volunteering with the Lakeland Police Department, to creating keepsake DVDs for the actors in Lakeland Community Theatre’s Out of the Box, a troupe with unique abilities, and to making Noah’s Ark the organization it is today.
The inspiration for Mickie’s involvement in Lakeland’s special needs community and her discovery of her “purpose” is Mickie’s 34-year-old daughter, Brittany, who has developmental and intellectual disabilities. When Brittany was almost two, Mickie was told by specialists that her daughter would never walk or talk. Mickie refused to accept that, and from then on, she’s worked hard to make sure Brittany had the tutors, occupational, and physical therapists she needed to live the fullest life she could.
A Call to Adopt
Mickie is proud to say that adoption is important to her family. Since witnessing her brother and sister-in-law adopt a daughter when Mickie was 12 years-old, she knew she was going to adopt when she was older.
Her biological daughter, Paula, was 11 when Mickie and her then-husband decided it was time to adopt. Initially, they wanted to adopt an older child, closer to Paula’s age, but the agency only showed children with special needs. At the time, they did not think they would know how to parent a child with special needs.
A year and a half later, they connected with an organization outside of Lubbock, Texas that helped unwed mothers. Three months later, they met Brittany, a 13-day-old baby girl with olive skin and brown eyes, and decided she was the perfect addition to their family.
Mickie and her family learned later that Brittany had intellectual and developmental disabilities, and from there, Mickie’s purpose in life was set.
“The lesson learned from this was that I was a special enough parent to raise and nurture a child with developmental disabilities and be a voice and advocate for all people with a disability,” she said. “Little did I know at that moment the impact Brittany would have on my life, giving me ‘my purpose’ in life all while changing the lives of people with disabilities along the way.”
Years later, while at a parent support group for families with loved ones with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Mickie remembers the moment that someone asked a question that spurred her to action.
“What will happen to our loved ones when we die?”
From that point on, the five families decided they would not stop until they had something for their loved ones so they could rest in peace. Thus, Noah’s Ark was born. A monthly activities program was established for its participants and a series of educational workshops for families began.
At home, Mickie witnessed first hand how Brittany didn’t have friends and was not included with “typical” peers when there were birthday parties or dances. She thought ahead to how her life would change as she grew older and how, despite her desire to, Brittany may never go to college like other children her age.
“Brittany asked if she could go to college,” Mickie said. “How do you tell your child they are not college material? You don’t!”
She knew it was time to make a change.
In the state of Florida, a person with a disability can stay in school until they are 22. That meant 8 years in high school. Mickie and a few other parents from Noah’s Ark families went to the Polk County School Board and the Dean at Florida Southern College and asked if they would consider an experimental transition program on their college campus. The program would help to prepare people with disabilities for the “real world” with skills they needed to succeed–like mastering public transportation, social security, food stamps, vocational rehab, and more. Students in the program were also provided with hands-on experience to not only elevate their job skills but actually help secure employment before exiting the program.
In 2000, the first trial year of the program was successfully run, and since then, the program has been cloned throughout the state. According to Noah’s Ark’s website, this public-private partnership has had up to a 90% success rate, as compared to only 7% from the traditional high school transition programs. The Transition Program was named the Best ESE Program in the State of Florida.
“Alone we can do so little: together we can do so much.”
“Alone we can do so little: together we can do so much.”
A year later, Noah’s Ark formed a partnership with the First United Methodist Church of Lakeland to build the first supported-living home near Lake Morton called Noah’s Nest. With the help of the community, the first Noah’s Nest residents were able to move into the community upon completion and begin living independently.
After Noah’s Nest came The Villages at Noah’s Landing. Noah’s Ark collaborated with then-governor Jeb Bush, Senators Paula Dockery, Adam Putnam, and Kelli Stargel, to acquire a 56-acre plot of land next to Lake Crago in North Lakeland. Mickie and Brittany developed a special friendship with Governor Jeb and his wife, Columba. They had the honor of being able to spend a night in the Governor’s Mansion. When Governor Jeb asked Brittany what she would like for dinner and that he would have their chef fix anything she wanted she chose chicken fingers and french fries, so that’s “exactly what they had.” The plan was to create a sustainable, pedestrian-oriented residential community for special needs residents. The organization had its land, they just needed to wait for the funding to build the residential community in Noah’s Landing.
When they finally received the finances they needed years later, Mickie said she thought she was in a dream she never wanted to wake from. Construction on the landing began immediately, and in 2016, it opened its doors to 126 residents
“In the beginning there were countless people that actually laughed and were nonbelievers and said Noah’s Ark would never come to light,” she said. “The motto, ‘never, never give up’ became what we lived by and stood for.”
Noah’s Landing now helps provide some peace of mind for families of individuals with developmental or intellectual disabilities, which was the goal from the very beginning.
Never, Never Giving Up
Around Lakeland, Mickie has actively looked and successfully helped to start different programs for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. So far, there are karate classes, basketball scrimmages with the Lady Mocs basketball team at Florida Southern College, art classes, dance classes, a theater troupe, a tennis team, American Sign Language classes, the Let It Shine Productions, and they’re just getting started.
“I just got to pat her on the back. She’s always walking the walk, talking the talk,” Gary said. “It doesn’t matter she’ll talk to anybody, and the next thing you know, she’ll ask ‘oh, have you considered doing something with the people who have disabilities with what you’re doing.’”
Before meeting Mickie, Gary had never worked with people with disabilities. But now, Mickie’s passions are his, and he’s gotten involved wherever possible.
Gary said one of his favorite memories is from a basketball game shortly after he became involved. During the game, when a player shoots a basket, everyone on the team cheers them on until the shot is made. It doesn’t matter if it takes one or ten tries. Everyone is supportive, no matter what. Gary watched on in awe.
“That was not what I had in mind or how I pictured it,” he said. “They were all so helpful to each other and very understanding of each other’s abilities.”
Gary and Mickie said the world would be a much better place if everyone acted like that.
On top of the incredible work she’s done with Noah’s Ark, Mickie, along with Lisa Miller, Mayor Howard Wiggs, and other city leaders, helped start the Lakeland Alliance on Accessibility, an initiative to make the city of Lakeland, businesses, streets, and sidewalks become more user-friendly and compliant with APD (Agency for People With Disabilites) regulations in order to be more accessible for people who are physically challenged.
One of their first big leaps was getting an “audible signal” installed at the Highway 33 and Melody Lane intersection. The audible signal made it a much safer crossing, not only for residents at the Villages of Noah’s Landing, but for all pedestrians.
“It’s very rewarding what we do,” Mickie said. “People say ‘how do you do it?’ Well, how do you not do it? I get so much more from them than I could possibly ever give to them.
Noah’s Ark would not be what it is today without the collaboration of governors, senators, but most importantly, those who wanted to see a change in the community. We’re so grateful for Mickie and all the work she puts in to make our community an extra special place to live in.