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Woman aims high for intellectually disabled adults
When Debbie Dear looks at the map of Vanguard Landing, her eyes – already lively – get even brighter.
The plan calls for cottages, a greenhouse, a farm stand, a restaurant, a bakery, a thrift store and equestrian center in Pungo, where more than a hundred adults with intellectual disabilities can work, play and live the full life they don’t always get elsewhere.
It was Dear’s idea, born out of life with a disabled daughter. Over the past few years she’s been gathering allies and resources, driven by the pressing need for more options for the disabled and her own passionate belief that Virginia Beach will always mobilize for a cause.
That’s why, in a recent meeting with the project’s civil engineer, she grinned at the map.
« Everyone knows not to stop this, » she said. « This is a force to be reckoned with. »
In this world there are dreamers and doers. Debbie Dear is both. In 1993 she turned an idea for a community playground into what may be the largest volunteer project Virginia Beach has ever seen: Kids Cove, which was built at Mount Trashmore in five days by 5,000 volunteers.
Now she’s at it again.
Vanguard Landing is bigger, more expensive and much more ambitious than Kids Cove. But like Kids Cove, having Dear’s unstoppable drive is convincing supporters that despite obstacles like the tough climate for nonprofits, Vanguard Landing will be built.
« It’s unbelievable to watch, » said Whitney Dear Reyes, the second of Dear’s four daughters. « Everyone wants to be a part, and I’ve never seen anyone pull people together like my mom. They’re drawn to her energy and to this project. »
Dear, 51, was born in Mobile, Ala., and grew up in Mississippi and Louisiana.
She studied education at Mississippi State and married her college sweetheart when she was 20 years old. Eager for an adventure, they scanned the country and picked a fresh place to live: Virginia Beach.
When Dear was almost 22 they had their first child, an adorable girl named Lindsey. A few years later, Dear noticed she seemed behind her peers in development.
Doctors called it a slight delay, but from her education courses, Dear knew better. She pressed for more tests and found Lindsey has a rare chromosomal change that causes intellectual disability.
The discovery, Dear said, was like heading in one direction, then discovering you’d landed someplace else. For a second, it takes your breath away. Then, life goes on.
« It was like, this is who she is, and this is what we gotta do, » Dear said. « She was very easy and sweet and loving. We just took her everywhere. »
Whitney came after Lindsey, and a while later, twin girls followed. Kids Cove was built shortly after, throwing a surprised Dear into news headlines and community service award ceremonies. Then, her marriage ended.
On her own, Dear kept her daughters together over movie nights with Chinese food. They called themselves « Dear-keteers. » (Dear shares her birthday with Walt Disney.) Another marriage followed, but it didn’t last.
Along the way, Dear began teaching, went back to school to become an assistant principal and continued to volunteer with local organizations and help her children’s PTAs. There were nights, she said, when she got just one hour of sleep.
Today, you’d never know it. Dear’s energy can fill a room, her raspy voice squeaking high when she gets excited, which is often. She lives in southern Virginia Beach with the twins and Lindsey, whom she calls « my heart, » and her third husband, Ron Keim, whom she calls, « truly my angel sent from heaven. »
When asked what her life would be like without Lindsey, Dear teared up. « I would not be as good. She has made me a better person. She has made me look at the world a little bit differently. »
On weekdays, Dear drives Lindsey to her job at Sugar Plum Bakery, which employs intellectually disabled locals. Dear no longer works for the schools; these days, it’s all about Vanguard Landing. The official launch two months ago featured City Council members and Mayor Will Sessoms, who suggested the city help in the form of a no-interest loan for the needed land.
« This is what the community should be doing. It’s one of the best public-private partnerships we can get, » City Councilman Bill DeSteph said of the project. « It’s just the right thing to do. »
Their support is just the beginning. Dear has been branching out to other local movers and shakers.
« We all live and breathe off Debbie’s enthusiasm, » said Bob Miller, civil engineer for Vanguard Landing and president of Virginia Beach Special Olympics. He joked: « Our job is to get her in front of people and then stop her from talking at some point. »
First, they need the land. A deal could be struck with one of two Pungo parcels before the end of the year.
Next up is a day program, then site development and construction on the cottages where residents will live.
Dear plans to be executive director, but she isn’t paying herself a salary.
More than anything else, the project needs money and in-kind donations – $6.3 million for the first phase and $35 million total. Eventually it will be self-sustaining, with funding from residents’ tuition, Medicaid waivers, on-site businesses and special events.
Dear has dreams of a big donor – she half-joked that she has one eye on the M&M heiress – but she’d also see many small donations from people across Virginia Beach, like the hundreds of locals who contributed to Kids Cove.
« People are searching for something that makes them feel like they’re making something better, » she said. « I would be blown over if the public does not come and go nuts over this and come together. »
Elisabeth Hulette, 757-222-5097