Long after the brackets closed, the fans cleared, the games ended, and the bar closed down at the Final Four FlyAway, lingering in Burke Neville’s mind was Starfire’s mission. That was 16 years ago, when the FlyAway was in its first year.
“After that Starfire became a huge part of our life,” said Burke, a Terrace Park resident. He and his wife Kelli chaired the FlyAway for several years, and eventually Burke was appointed Starfire’s Board President. At that time Starfire was focused on community supports to ease people with disabilities’ access to social activities.
“The outings were great. But when you got back to Starfire you got out of the van and that was it. It ended there,” Burke explained.
Then in 2010, Starfire began to transition toward its most innovative work. “Parents were asking us, ‘What’s going to happen to my son or daughter after I’m gone?’” Burke said.
That’s when he attended his neighbor, and Starfire member, Robbie’s PATH at his house (a PATH helps set a plan for the future that is supported by friends and family). Robbie is known around his neighborhood for being a prankster who loves to make people laugh.
“If you spend a day on your bike with Robbie, he will take you around to all the scenic parts of his neighborhood,” said Evan, Starfire staff. “And without fail, everyone you pass will wave to him.”
Robbie, Lucy, Burke
His PATH meeting was one of the most well-attended in Starfire’s history. Robbie invited the mailman, the local police officer, neighborhood garage mechanic, local Boy Scout troop leader, and tons of neighbors such as Burke. Likely due to his charisma and popularity, all of them came.
“I was blown away by how involved people are in the neighborhood,” Burke said. “It became clear to me that everyone in Terrace Park knows Robbie and cares about him.”
Since then Burke and Robbie have formed a deeper friendship together.
“I like to talk to Burke,” said Robbie. “We always bike ride together on the trail and I hang out at his house.”
“Before, it was easy for volunteers to just sign up for an outing,” Burke said. “Versus now we ask people to continue to engage and build relationships. When I spend time with Robbie, the memory doesn’t die. Which is really what it’s all about.”
Sharing Starfire’s message of inclusion with their kids became vital to the Neville family. They would read the story of Waddie Welcome to help their children understand the importance of including people.
A year ago, his son Jack joined a Circle of Friends club at Mariemont school to build a network of friends around his classmate Luke. They began by having lunch together once a month.
“It’s not just our small group of friends now, a lot of people are joining and being nice around Luke,” said Jack, a 7th grader who was recently asked to lead the group.
Before Luke was getting left out of invitations to birthday parties and get togethers. Now the group makes plans outside of school to get together, and last month Luke had friends at his birthday party to celebrate it with him.
“Luke really seems to enjoy the kids in his Circle of Friends,” Melissa Gaskey, Luke’s mom said. “With the ever-widening gap between Luke’s abilities and understanding of the world and that of his peers, we’re touched and encouraged by how other kids show support and friendship.”
Certainly, Jack’s passion to lead and get involved in bridging the inclusion gap did not come without the strong example set before him.
“It has to start with one person and one neighborhood,” Burke said. “And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Note: This story was updated 4/14 to make the correction that Jack did not start the Circle of Friends group, but joined the group and was asked to lead it this year.