Time to make Christmas special for people with intellectual disabilities in Rutherford & Cannon Counties

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It's once again time to make Christmas special for people with intellectual disabilities in Rutherford & Cannon County.

The Heart Tree Project will return to Journeys in Community Living's main facility on Haley Road on Wednesday, Nov. 18 and will remain there through Dec. 18. Journeys in Community Living is a local nonprofit that has served people with intellectual disabilities in this area since 1975. The agency assists the individuals as they come to recognize their own personal visions of how and where they want to live, work and socialize.

The Heart Tree works like this: Any community member can call or visit Journeys' main facility between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday to get the information needed to fulfill the Christmas wishes of one or more of the agency's Heart Tree recipients. The agency's phone number is 615-890-4389. The physical address is 1130 Haley Rd., Murfreesboro, TN 37129 (the facility is next to the county convenience center just off Highway 231 South and Middle Tennessee Boulevard).

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People served by Journeys are selected to be beneficiaries of the Heart Tree based on a set of criteria set by the agency. Situations taken into account include whether an individual has any living family in the area and whether family can afford a gift for their loved one.

Donors who visit in person will be able to pick out one or more ornaments with a requested item written on them. Those who call will receive information on one or more items (as requested) that are associated with ornaments hanging on the Heart Tree.

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The majority of items on the Heart Tree are simple things like clothing, including socks, shirts and pants, said Journeys Development Coordinator Mark Bell. Each individual selected to submit needed items to the wish list may also submit one item that may be a bit more costly (but still within most household budgets). Examples from the past include movies on DVD, inexpensive watches and earrings.

"Our wonderful Rutherford & Cannon county community members have made this effort successful every year for more than a decade," Bell said. "It has shown everyone it touches that the giving spirit is still alive and well in our area."

Donors must return items to Journeys no later than Dec. 18 to ensure the gifts reach their destination by Christmas morning, he added. Each gift is going to a household that might not otherwise have any gifts under the Christmas tree come the morning of Dec. 25 without the action of the donor

"We do ask that our donors wrap each item before returning them if possible, and that the paper ornament they picked up be taped to the exterior of each item so we can properly keep track of everything," Bell said. "If wrapping gifts isn't your specialty, then we can wrap them here at the center, but we still ask that the ornament be returned so we can keep up with what is going where."

Wrapped items that are returned without an ornament will unfortunately result in the "ruining of a perfectly good wrapping job," Bell joked.

While individual donors are always appreciated and actually account for the most Heart Tree donations each year, Journeys is also hoping to partner with area businesses this year for the Heart Tree. For example, over the past several years Publix Store No. 1234 on New Salem Highway in Murfreesboro has collected about a dozen items for Journeys' Heart Tree.

"Publix has always done an awesome job with the Heart Tree, and we're hoping other area businesses will join us in making the Heart Tree even more successful this year," Bell said. "Any business that would like to partner with us this year can call my personal cellphone at 615-295-3046 anytime."

Last year for the second time since 2013 Journeys ended up with a totally 'ornament-less' Heart Tree in the agency's lobby, Bell added. "That's actually a good thing," he added, "since that means every person's Heart Tree request was fulfilled. Even better, the agency actually ended up adding a second round of ornaments to the Heart Tree in 2014 thanks to the success of the project. We try to address the greatest needs first, so we held off on adding a few of the requested items until we ran out ran out early last year."

The Heart Tree project began several years ago when Journeys' Human Resources Director Rachel Burch saw the need for such a project and came up with an idea to address that need. The project continues to grow and Burch continues to be involved in organizing and running the project.

George Cunningham, the agency's director, said Burch's Heart Tree has become a tradition at Journeys.

"Even though our program is focused on making the individuals we serve more independent 364 days out of the year, we recognize the importance of the Heart Tree Project and what it represents on our most holy day of the year," Cunningham said.

Journeys currently serves approximately 120 people with through its programs, which includes a Residential Program, Vocational Rehabilitation Program, Multi-County Transportation Program, HealthCare Oversight Program and Community Day Program.

The United Way of Rutherford and Cannon Counties helps fund the agency's HealthCare Oversight Program, which aids individuals with intellectual disabilities in keeping track of and getting treatment for their often-complicated medical conditions. The organization's programs are primarily funded by the state of Tennessee, with Rutherford County Government and the City of Murfreesboro also providing funding. The organization also accepts private donations.

Those who wish to request information from an ornament by phone or who would like more information on Journeys' programs can call the nonprofit between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday at 615-890-4389, ext. 45. More information on Journeys can also be found online at www.journeystn.org.

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