Gathering angels: Fulton residents plan, raise funds for unique community

By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times

With a small puff of air, Fulton potter Renae Bennett lifted the lid of the kiln, revealing a small gathering of clay angels inside.

“From start to finish, it takes two weeks to make an angel,” she said. “So far, we’ve finished around 500 of them.”

Straight-faced and with deadpan delivery, she added,” I’ve got to make 10,000 of these things.”

Potters like Bennett know shaping a vision into reality requires, above all else, patience; they can picture something in their minds, take a lump of clay and then slowly work it into something unique and beautiful. It takes time, but it can be done.

It’s a principle that can be applied to other projects as well. For example, creating a local non-profit community for men and women with developmental disabilities.

“Every organization starts with a vision,” said Brenda Bridges, who is working with Bennett to create Crossroads Ranch — a planned self-sustaining community for people with developmental disabilities.

Once finished, Crossroads ranch will sit on 42 acres of land, which Bennett will donate to the project. The ranch will include up to 100 small houses where high-functioning men and women with cognitive disabilities can live.

At its heart will be a community lodge for gathering; at its outskirts, there will be a barn for animals and room for gardening. There will be a lake and walking track; a small park and campgrounds. The residents will be under supervision, of course, but they will largely be on their own.

It will be a home. That’s the vision.

Work on the ranch has already begun in earnest. The project is backed by the support of the CREATE Foundation and Bennett is working with a small army of volunteers — many of whom come from local organizations or businesses — to create the clay angels, which are being sold for $100 each to raise money to help create the ranch.

Construction may start as early as next year.

Both Bennett and Bridges see their sons living there. Bennett’s son, Marcus, suffered a traumatic brain injury 10 years ago. Although there’s a lot he can do, he still needs daily supervision. Previously, he lived in an institution, which his mother hated.

“I was literally sick having to leave him there,” Bennett said. “My dream has always been to bring him home.”

“An institution is just that. It’s a sterile environment. We want this to be a home,” Bridges said. Her son, Adam, has Down syndrome. Outgoing and affable, Adam is like a big, lovable kid. For the most part, he could live on his own … wants to live on his own, in fact. But Bridges said he still needs some supervision.

That’s what will make Crossroads Ranch ideal.

“They will have the structure they need … But they’re also going to be treated like human beings,” Bennett said. “They want to be independent … We want to give them a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

The idea of an independent community for developmentally disabled men and women isn’t entirely new, but it’s one that has very few examples. In fact, the Mustard Seed in Brandon is the lone statewide example. The waiting list for residency there is tremendous, Bennett said.

“There’s not a lot of help out there for people like [our sons],” she said.

Bridges agreed.

“There’s no place for them to go,” she said.

Life for people like Adam and Marcus can be difficult socially, their mothers said. Oftentimes, they lack interaction with others who face the same kinds of challenges.

“Having a community like this will help,” Bridges said, adding that Crossroads Ranch will allow its residents to have the independence they crave, and also the safety net they need.

“It’s everything they need, but small enough that it’s not overwhelming,” Bennett said.

“I want them to be proud of their homes,” she added. “I hope that they will be able to live in these houses for 60 or 70 years.”

Bennett’s already thinking in the long term … envisioning the finished product as she continues to sculpt. That’s the potter in her.

So, why angels? When asked, Bennett shrugged.

“I just thought it would be beautiful,” she said. “And every one of them is a piece of artwork … unique and beautiful.”

Bridges smiled at the comment.

“Like our kids,” she said.

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