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Janie O’Keefe

Not only identifying the problem, but fixing it.

Taking the Extra Step

By Peyton Shell

An observant person can notice a problem, but only a brave person can take the extra step to fix the problem. Over a decade ago, Janie O’Keefe’s brother came to visit her, and she first realized the problem. In an attempt to find something she and her brother could do that would accommodate his wheelchair, she found that it was near impossible to find any activities offered that were suitable for him.

Most people would dismiss the problem at this point as unfortunate and move on with their lives, but not Janie O’Keefe. She set out to create an organization that would offer these kinds of activities and ideas for others like her brother. In February 2002, she started a nonprofit organization that a few years later evolved into the Disability Connection in Gulfport, Mississippi, an organization dedicated to creating connected community. Not only does her organization provide events in which individuals with disabilities can participate, but they provide resources, build ramps, construct disability playgrounds, and strive to meet the needs of those with disabilities wherever they can.

Perhaps this project is so close to O’Keefe’s heart because her own daughter has an intellectual disability as well. “I want my daughter to be able to do everything everyone else can do,” O’Keefe says. But instead of stopping with that desire, O’Keefe brings that dream to life for her own family and many others.

A typical day for Janie O’Keefe is very busy, although she says it is not very different from anyone else. She begins her day by helping her daughter get ready for a workshop she attends during the week. Then she heads off to the office for the day and returns in time to receive her daughter later that evening.  However, the weekends are her favorite time because she is able to spend them with her family. “Every Friday night all the family comes together, and we talk about our blessings and share what we experienced during the week,” O’Keefe explains. The kids sing and play instruments, and so music is always a part of these Friday nights as well. Saturday is their quiet day, while Sunday is reserved for projects like gardening.

According to O’Keefe, her biggest success is community networking.  She says she has been thrilled to discover how willing her community is to come together and meet the needs of people in the community with disabilities.  It’s often difficult to attain adequate funding for all that she wishes she could do because her organization is a small non-profit.  Yet, there are many wonderful volunteers who really enable the organization to continue doing what it does.  “Volunteers make up the difference in everything,” O’Keefe says.

When asked what the most rewarding part of her career is, O’Keefe says it is the clients and the people they have the opportunity to serve.  “When you see how happy they are when they have accomplished things they could have never done without help, you can never put a price on that.”