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Growing Same As U Blessed With Unexpected Opportunity

Jennifer Sell wakes up every day, and she knows why she does what she does and for whom.

It will soon be three years since she started the not-for-profit, Same As U, which came about because the mom wanted to create a place where people with developmental disabilities — including her daughter, Jennifer, born with Down syndrome 21 years ago — could continue learning after high school while having a lot of fun.

Same As U opened its doors two years ago with eight young adults with developmental disabilities. Today, the nonprofit serves 49 young adults and operates in White River Christian Church (which generously gave Same As U start-up space).

“There is so much comfort in staying at White River Christian Church. Staying would be the easy and safe answer, but God doesn’t call us to live life safe,” Sell shared with me this week. “We will soon be at capacity and there are more young adults with disabilities that need us.”

The solution is to move Same As U to a larger space. A building of its own. Where there is room to grow.

The nonprofit 12 days ago released plans to purchase a building, Faith Community Church at 9201 Promise Road, in Noblesville. (The Times published a press release on Jan. 28.)

A capital campaign is raising money to buy the building.

Going into the campaign, Sell wondered: “Could we raise the necessary funds?” “Are we too young of an organization?” “And do we have the depth of donors needed to reach the $1.5 million building campaign goal?”

She said, “Thankfully, I didn’t have to answer this on my own.” Same as U has “an amazing board with some very knowledgeable people” who have been through campaigns before. Plus, Sell enrolled in a course through the IU School of Philanthropy.

The purchase agreement with Faith Community Church included a feasibility clause that expires a week from today. “This allowed us time to raise funds and determine if this was, in fact, feasible,” she said. A fundraising goal was set to be met by the end of the feasibility period based on what experts in this field recommended.

“To date, we have met our goal to raise $1 million by Feb. 15. At this point, we are leaning into the process and faithfully moving forward,” Sell said. Fundraising efforts will continue to reach the finish line of $1.5 million. The money will cover the entire cost of buying the building, making necessary renovations to allow for programming and cover two years of building operating costs. “By not having a mortgage, income from tuition fees and donors will be able to go directly toward operating costs,” she said. “All of this, plus the opportunity to reach more young adults and, therefore, grow income through tuition creates a very sustainable plan moving forward.”

It all seems to make sense, including a partnership with the Faith Community Church (Patrick Propst is pastor) to continue to operate out of the building on Sundays. “We look forward to partnering with them as we serve the community,” Sell said. “We were not looking at all (when they learned that the church was for sale.) Sometimes the best opportunities find you when you least expect it.”

Same As U is based on the Bible verse, 1 Corinthians 9:8, “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work,” she said.

Sell said 100 percent of the Same As U board of directors and staff have already made a financial commitment to the building campaign. Also, many of the Same As U families who have loved ones attending Same As U, have contributed, “which shows how invested they are in the program.”

More than $500,000 has been donated from local organizations. “The support has been overwhelming. We are not done yet and are asking the community to stand with us as we raise the remaining $500,000,” Sell said.

Sell said they care about their donors “and feel it is our duty to invite them to join us in our mission and tell our story. Together, we can help these young adults live the life they imagine.”

She said, “Once these young adults leave the high school system, they find themselves at home, isolated and with too much time on their hands. They are at risk for depression and for losing the skills they worked so hard on in school.”

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities hovers around 76 percent and for those that have jobs, often find the hours offered to to work are very limiting, Sell said.

Same As U serves students in Hamilton, Boone, Marion and Hancock counties.

She admitted this campaign was a group effort. “Yes, I may have been the visionary behind creating Same As U, but there were many people who played a key role in getting this to fruition.”

Sell continued, “God laid this on my heart in 2017 when our oldest daughter, Emily, graduated from high school.“It was at that time Jessica started talking about her high school graduation and the desire to go to college,” the mom said.

“I soon realized the dreams my husband and I had for Jessica’s future were the same dreams that many parents like us shared.”

But Sell doesn’t take all of the credit.

Early in the creation of Same as U, Sell, who is executive director, reconnected with Sara MacGregor, now co-founder and program director/lead teacher at Same As U. Sara and her husband, Scott, have an 18-year-old daughter, Abby, who has Down syndrome.

Where Sell comes from a nonprofit and business background, MacGregor has a college degree in Special Education, experience in the classroom and is currently pursuing her master’s degree from Purdue University. Plus, each member of the board and staff has a conviction to serve students to the very best of their ability.

“Set in a college-like setting, Same As U is unique in what we are doing,” Sell said. Same As U provides meaningful, full-day, educational and programmable opportunities to adults with a developmental disability who have exited high school and desire to continue learning, growing, and exploring their unique capabilities and talents. Curriculum is broken into categories of academics, vocational skills, life skills, recreational skills and physical health. Same As U meets Monday through Thursday in person; students commit to which days they will attend.

Sell’s recently-turned 21-year-old daughter, Jessica, attends Same As U and Noblesville High School’s Limitless program, which allows students to continue through age 22 and receive support from the district’s Special Education Department.

“It’s a great program, and I wouldn’t want her to miss that opportunity,” the mom said. Jessica Sell will attend both programs again next school year until she ages out of NHS. “At that point, she will attend more days at Same As U but not full time,” Sell said. “My hope is she will have employment that she enjoys and takes pride in.”

What does Jessica think about all of this? She takes it all in stride and is not really surprised or impressed. “She truly sees herself as the ‘Same’ as her peers without disabilities. It’s like she knew all along she, too, would have a fun, cool place to go to college,” Sell said. “Why wouldn’t she? Through that lens, it’s only natural she would have a place like Same As U to attend … Even though her life looks very different than others, she has the same desires for a full, meaningful life. We all want to know we are loved, and our life has purpose, disability or not.”

“Same As U has grown mainly by word of mouth,” she said.

Jennifer (Jones) Sell, who grew up in Noblesville and is a graduate of Noblesville High School and Indiana University, where she met her husband, Kerry, stayed home with their three children (Emily last May graduated from Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., and Nora is now a junior at NHS) for a time, then was on staff at Northview Church for six years, with a year off to renovate her 100-plus-year-old house in Old Town Noblesville. She spent more than a year at Joy’s House to learn the in’s and out’s of a nonprofit.

The mom is employed full time at Same As U. “It is extremely humbling to think I get to do this for a living,” Sell said. “My job covers the gamut. It is rewarding, challenging, fun and so much more. But every day, I am reminded by these young adults that call Same As U their college.” -Contact Betsy Reason at betsy@thetimes24-7.com.