Independence for the Mentally Challenged

Story by Lenore Devore
Brittany Schirm gets up each morning, gets dressed, eats breakfast, then boards the van to go to work.
Her morning routine is just like any other working woman, and the 36-year-old likes it that way. When things throw that routine off, like family vacations, she becomes antsy, ready to return to work.
That may seem a little out of the norm for most people. But for Brittany and others who spend their days at the Alliance for Independence in Lakeland, routines are critical parts of their lives. Don’t let the fact that she’s mentally challenged tempt you into thinking she doesn’t know what’s going on in every part of her life — and many times her AFI family’s lives.
“You see enough special needs children — they are adults, but they are still children in every way, shape and form,” says Brittany’s mother, Sena Schirm. “They understand each other. Brittany says she’s going to work — that’s what she calls it. There’s not a day she wants to miss. She’s very productive while she’s there.”
Brittany was born with Craniosynostosis, an anomaly that caused her skull to fuse together, leaving no room for her brain to grow. The early days were rough for her mother and father, Greg Schirm.
“We were referred to Shands” hospital in Gainesville, Sena says. “Brittany was seven months and she started developing hydrocephalus — fluid on the brain. When she had surgery at Shands in 1982, we didn’t know what her life would be like.”
They learned quickly, and since then they’ve spent hours and days advocating for their daughter, ensuring she received an education and was productive afterward.
“We’ve been involved in school inclusion since she was in preschool,” Sena says. “Brittany has always been in special classes.” The family, including her younger sister Brenna, was proud when she graduated from Doris Sanders Learning Center in Lakeland when she was 22.
Sena, who works at Citizens Bank, first learned about Alliance for Independence from a manager at the bank who served on AFI’s board of directors. Sena now serves on that board.
“That’s how we got involved in finding a place for Brittany,” Sena says. “She goes all day Monday through Friday, and has been for 14 years. She gets on a van, which picks her up and drops her off.”
Alliance for Independence Executive Director Katie Daughtrey Tinsley appreciates the voice Sena brings to the board.
“Having individuals on our board who are aware and knowledgeable of our mission and daily operations is very valuable,” Daughtrey Tinsley said. “To have someone in the community that can share the experience, insight and effort provided to all of our clients, by a parent like Sena, is priceless to our agency. Not to mention it is critical to have a parent who can communicate firsthand with elected officials as to the needs of the intellectually disabled in Florida.”
Since 1954, Alliance for Independence has offered adults with developmental disabilities a place to learn new skills during the day. Brittany, for example, is involved in the Aktion club, chorus, culinary arts, horticulture and other things, her mother says.
Their days are very scheduled and very time-oriented — the same every day, Sena says. “We take vacations but Brittany hardly wants to go. She wants to go back to work. This is routine. Even in our home, she knows what we are doing today, what we’re doing tomorrow.”
Sena says Brittany’s life at AFI is amazing. “She loves her home and doesn’t ever want to leave us or go in a group home. But we couldn’t live without (AFI) — we couldn’t work. In any situation, we had special care for her before school or after. This is fulfilling for her and those adults there — rewarding, fulfilling, recognition for them for what they are doing.”.
Although living at home, Brittany’s independence has allowed Greg, who works at Publix, and Sena to continue working. Brenna, who is married with a 2-year-old, also helps care for her sister.
“She is very close to her sister,” Sena says. “Brittany will always live with us; she will not move out.” But when the Schirms pass, they take comfort in knowing Brenna will look after Brittany.
For now, Greg and Sena are looking toward retirement in the not-too-distant future. When they do retire, Brittany will still go to AFI, she says. “Just because we retire doesn’t mean she will stay at home. She will go and feel self-worth there. They are everything for us. AFI brings everything to her life.”

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