By Anna Grace Moore
Photos by James Culver & Contributed
The Ticket to Win
The ties that bind us originate from a common thread: community. This natural yearn to belong connects people of all different walks of life and can only strengthen within such a community, which is most clearly defined as people united against a common front or working together to accomplish a goal.
This phenomenon is often replayed throughout history, and the most successful communities have capitalized on uniting different people with unique strengths because together, they are better than one. This resounding theme is one that Birmingham-based non-profit Mitchell’s Place holds true.
Founded in August 2005 by Mountain Brook residents Allen and Nancy Meisler, Mitchell’s Place provides research-based services and educational programs for children with autism spectrum disorder or other developmental disabilities and their families. On Saturday, Aug. 19 at East Lake Park, Mitchell’s Place hosted its third annual dragon boat festival, involving 11 teams of nearly 21 different people each and hundreds of others to raise money and awareness for its programs.
The idea to fundraise through such grueling teamwork developed as both an engaging and distinct way to advance Mitchell’s Place’s efforts to provide services “to unlock each child’s potential.”
A Founder’s Story
“When my son Mitchell was born, everything seemed to be just fine,” Nancy says. “By the time he was 18 months, his language was not developing. We got him evaluated for speech therapy when he was 2–that would’ve been 1997. Our insurance didn’t even cover speech therapy in 1997.”
Although Nancy noticed developmental delays in Mitchell when he was a toddler, medical professionals never diagnosed him with autism until he was in grade school. Allen and Nancy spent almost the first 10 years of Mitchell’s life bouncing from therapist to therapist, practice to practice, searching for the best services for him.
Paying out-of-pocket for Mitchell’s speech therapy and traveling hundreds of miles just to see medical professionals, Allen and Nancy decided they needed to step up and create the community and resources they so longed for their own son.
“When [Mitchell] was between 8 and 9, we decided we needed to do something about this and started talking to psychologists and special ed teachers,” Nancy says. “We decided to open a center for high-functioning kids with autism because they were falling through the cracks.”
Allen and Nancy filed for their non-profit license in 2004, and by February 2005, their only three classrooms’ registration lists had completely filled up. Mitchell’s Place, named after their loving inspiration, opened its doors in August of that year and has since served more than 2,500 families over the last 18 years.
The non-profit began with only 20 employees and now has a team of more than 90 different employees working together to aid their students in need. With services such as applied behavior analysis “ABA,” occupational therapy, dyslexia evaluations and treatment, speech therapy, psychiatry, psychology, feeding therapy, social skills training, consultations, advocacy and more, Mitchell’s Place officially can say it has almost everything.
The Origins of Dragon Boat Racing
More than 2,300 years ago during the fourth century B.C., Chinese politics underwent the “Warring States” period–often described as a treacherous time when rulers betrayed one another for political gains. With shifting alliances, rulers often found it difficult to receive unbiased counsel and were not trusting of even some of their most loyal subjects.
One such subject, Chinese patriot Qu Yuan, served as a counselor to his king during this time. According to Dynamic Dragon Boat Racing’s website, racedragonboats.com, “Qu Yuan championed political reform and truth as essential to a healthy state.”
Fate took a turn when his king heeded the counsel of some discreditable counselors, and Qu Yuan was banished, leaving him to wander the rest of his days in despair. Although he was heartbroken, Qu Yuan eloquently depicted his vehement passion for his people and apprehension for his king’s reign in his poetry.
Upon learning of his kingdom being overthrown by a rival, Qu Yuan committed suicide by throwing himself into the Mei Lo River. His people loved him, and they rowed out to try and save him, slapping the water with their paddles to ward off fish and alleged evil spirits in the water.
Years later, dragon boat races became a fun, symbolic way to honor Qu Yuan’s legacy on the anniversary of his death each year. The early ‘80s saw the rise in popularity of this sport in the United States.
Throughout its existence, Mitchell’s Place has strived to bridge the gap between children in need and resources ready and able to service such needs. One bridging aspect is the organization’s unique sense of belonging–an understanding that dreams do not come to fruition overnight; Instead, they are built on the backs of people working together.
It’s this foundation that led Mitchell’s Place to partner with Dynamic Dragon Boat Racing to create a highly-anticipated, community-wide dragon boat festival, featuring numerous citizens from across the Southeast competing for “the greater good.”
Of all the team-building and fundraising activities, dragon boat racing was chosen because of its uniqueness.
“Our first Dragon Boat Race and Festival was held in 2019, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we could not hold it again until 2022, making 2023 our third annual festival,” says Julia Riedel, Associate Director of Advancement.
The Festival of Feats
Back for the third year in a row, the 2023 Mitchell’s Place Dragon Boat Race and Festival featured nearly 400 rowers in all, competing in 46-feet-long dragon boats for the gold. Each dragon boat was decorated with colorful scales and a specially-designed “head and tail of the dragon.”
“The Dragon Boat Festival was so much fun and a great way to expose the community to the incredible work being done by Mitchell’s Place,” says Baylee Clark, a Mitchell’s Place Junior Board member. “My company, Strong Automotive, sponsored a team, and I loved getting to tell my coworkers about all the ways that Mitchell’s Place unlocks potential in children.”
“Row Hard or Row Home,” a team from Brasfield and Gorrie General Contractors, took home the gold for the third year in a row with another Brasfield and Gorrie team, “In-Sync,” snagging second place. “Heart to Handle,” a team from Encompass Health, took home the bronze.
In addition to the races, the festival also featured a kids’ zone complete with family-friendly activities, live entertainment, food trucks, a vendor market and more. One highlight of the festival was the “Bloody Mary” contest.
“Getting to spend time on the water and making Bloody Mary’s was the best way to beat the August heat,” Baylee says. “Our team is already talking about ways to improve our time and bring home the gold next year, but we all know the real winners are the Mitchell’s Place staff, who work every day to provide opportunities to some amazing kids.”
So, what does a Chinese poet from a millennia ago and two modern-day parents of a son with autism agree upon? Community–that’s what.
Qu Yuan advocated for the strength in numbers, in unity. Although his king failed him, he never lost sight of his dream for a united front and desire to serve his people.
Similarly, Allen and Nancy Meisler’s desire to serve children with autism and developmental disabilities fueled their initiative to create such a community where needs are met, not dismissed. Mitchell’s Place was conceptualized nearly 28 years ago during a “warring period” in the Meislers’ own lives, but now, they get to see the fruit of their labor whenever a child reaches a new milestone within their doors.
“We will always have to raise money because we can’t charge enough to cover our costs with all of the professionals we have to hire,” Nancy says. “To keep our standard as high as it is, we have to have as many people as we have, and we’re determined to do whatever it takes to keep up with this demand.”
The 2023 Mitchell’s Place Dragon Boat Race and Festival helped raise $81,713 for the program’s initiatives. Their success, Nancy says, can be attributed to the ties of fellowship their organization has created with the Birmingham community and beyond.
These relationships encourage children and families, who are sometimes low on hope, to believe in the power of miracles. It’s these miracles that enrich the purpose of Mitchell’s Place and those who work to carry on its legacy.
If community is defined as the ties that bind us together, let it be known that community is also the catalyst for positive change.
Those interested in learning more about Mitchell’s Place can visit mitchells-place.com.