Angela Hunter gives kids with autism, more a place to learn, grow

Tracy Haun OwensOur Town Neighbors

When Angela Hunter held her first back-to-school disability resource night at Central Baptist Church of Fountain City in 2008, she wanted to use her own experience as the mother of a young man with autism to reach out to other families like hers. Her son, Derrick Freeman, was then a high school student. He had been diagnosed with autism at the age of 3 and had gone through a few years afterward where he did not speak at all, communicating only by creating art.

Today, Hunter is the founder and executive director of the not-for-profit her son inspired, Our Place Art Organization, providing programs and support for those with autism and other intellectual/developmental disabilities and their families. Freeman, who turns 29 this month, is employed in the community and has his own Eyes of Faith art studio at the Emporium Center, 100 S. Gay St. His art is exhibited and collected all over the world.

Hunter and Freeman were honored on Memorial Day by Fountain City Town Hall, given the Chair’s Award for their community service as part of Honor Fountain City Day. This week, representatives from Arby’s will visit the Our Place summer day camp at the Emporium Center to drop off a generous corporate donation.

Post-cooking-class feast at Whole Foods

Although art was her son’s first love, the organization she directs is about so much more than art, says Hunter. At its core, it is about helping those with disabilities and their families learn and grow in an enriching environment. The organization acts as a resource to direct families to knowledge and help. It also provides opportunities for families to enjoy time together. There are art classes in which siblings and other family members can participate, plus monthly cooking classes at Whole Foods and outings to Barnes & Noble. From Whole Foods, Our Place received a $2,000 grant to start a kitchen garden at Central Baptist and uses it to teach life skills, a vital part of the work Our Place does.

Hunter says one of the most common questions that parents have is, “Once our kids get out of high school, what are they going to do?” Hunter has been growing a job-training component of the organization, talking to community leaders and businesses to begin placing program participants in employment at establishments like Arby’s, Dollar Tree, Zoo Knoxville and others.

Right now the organization operates out of other spaces, but Hunter’s long-range goal is a building dedicated to Our Place.

Because she is a believer in good things happening and in putting prayers into words, Hunter says “if anyone has a building” to loan the not-for-profit, that would allow her to hold more programmed events and camps year-round.

Faith has motivated much of her and her son’s journey. When he was not speaking, only creating art, she remembers praying, “Lord, let this be a blessing.” Now Freeman has become a powerful role model for those with autism. He has received a Temple Grandin Award for his advocacy. Later this year, he will deliver a piece of art to golfer Ernie Els’ Els for Autism Foundation in Jupiter, Fla.

“Derrick’s art is his ministry,” says his mom, adding that images of angels are sometimes spied in his works.

Sewing fun at Our Place summer day camp at the Emporium

Freeman will have an exhibit at the Emporium Center at the next First Friday, Aug. 2. The following day, Aug. 3, Our Place will hold its 12th annual back-to-school disability resource event and backpack giveaway from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Central Baptist.

The organization relies on grants and donations. This year, the organization received a $5,000 Norma and Malcolm Baker Recreation Program Grant for the six-week day camp at the Emporium Center. Our Place has one major fundraiser a year, Bowl for Autism, held in the spring at Maple Hall downtown. Hunter is actively seeking sponsors for next year. To donate to the organization, including to the upcoming backpack event, contact Hunter at [email protected]. She also seeks volunteers and would love to involve more of the community with this mission.

“It’s OK to be different. We want people to meet us where we are,” she says. “What man sees as an obstacle, we see as an opportunity to grow and enhance our community.”

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