Mom leads the way at Just People

Just People Inc. is a private nonprofit agency that provides a variety of support services to adults with developmental disabilities, mental illness and head injury. The Gwinnett County-based program started in Lilburn in the home of the Dowlings back in the fall of 1995.

After many years of volunteering within the community, Becky Dowling found helping adults with disabilities the most rewarding. What does she contribute its success to? Her ability to keep the program feeling like a family. After all, it is run by a family with Mom at the helm. The program, which started out with 15 members, has grown to more than 200 members and has more than 50 staffers, including all three of the Dowling children, a nephew and daughter-in-law.

"We thought Just People was just a hobby for Mom while she waited for Dad to retire." Kelli Dowling, 33, said. "But the need for this type of service was so great mom's agency grew fast, she become overwhelmed and needed help.

"Her hobby became a mission, and we all jumped on board. My sister (Krista) and I were both in college, and working for mom part time in the summer seemed like the natural thing to do."

"I was in high school with no real direction, so mom suggested I help her out until I decided what I wanted to do, and the people just grew on me", said Dowling's 25-year -old son, Kevin, nicknamed "Bubba."

"In 1998, I retired from a major corporation and realized in order to spend time with my wife of 28 years (now 38), I was going to have to go to work with her, bringing my business skill to the table," Kevin Dowling said.

A lot has changed since then. Kelli is married with three children (Keegan, Kinzley and Kayden) and is the chief administration officer of the agency, Krista is a the Special Olympic coordinator and working on becoming a special needs trust specialist with Smith Barney. Bubba, who worked for Just People for eight years, is a freelance photographer and still volunteers with the agency. Briel, his girlfriend of five years, has been the administrative manager for the last three years, and is the mother of Kairo Dowling.

Big Kevin is the property manager of the Just People Village (an apartment complex in Roswell where they now live) and Village Walk (a townhome community in Lilburn). Dowling's nephew, Sean Kent, 30, and his girlfriend, Marni Forman, live with the Gwinnett Group and handle property management, maintenance and coach sports.

Walk around the office, day program or properties and you will hear "mom" called out constantly. Whether it is a consumer or family member, Becky answers.

The mom of the family keeps it together, develops traditions, loves folks unconditionally, accepts your flaws, stands up for you always and sees the potential that no one else sees. It's that love and strength that molds all people, including the consumers in Just People.

Just People has all of the natural traditions of family life: there are family picnics, a monthly newsletter to keep families updated on things, a holiday open house, and on all holidays a celebration is planned for those who have no family.

Becky attributes their success to her family and the staff who include members in their lives also. Most children of the staff - including Becky's seven grandchildren - think of the consumers as aunts and uncles. On weekend outings it common to hear Keegan, age 4, say "Come on guys, get on the bus," and "Are you my new friend?" to someone in the group he doesn't recognize.

May is the month to celebrate mother.

"Anyone female that is special to you, that helps you with the day-to-day struggles of life, that is there for you unconditionally should be acknowledged this month," Becky said. "Being a mom is the hardest job there is, but the most rewarding. I don't look at Just People as a job, it's just a way of life for me, like being a mom is."

For information on the program, or to make a donation to help consumers who have special needs and no family, contact Alisha Mueller at Just People Inc., 1600 Oakbrook Drive, Suite 530, Norcross, GA 30093. Call 770-441-1188 or email at jpeople99@netscape.net.

"People Helping People" is a weekly column written by the executive directors of nonprofit organizations in Gwinnett County.

Need help or know someone who does? The Gwinnett Helpline directs callers to the appropriate nonprofit agency. Call 770-995-3339.