It’s hardly 8 o’clock on a Thursday morning, but the parish hall at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer is bustling. After a wave goodbye to their loved ones, students enter, shrugging off backpacks and coats before heading to seats scattered about the recreation room. Shelves, overflowing with books, games and educational manipulatives, create pods, each filled with desks arranged in various configurations.
From the rear of the room, a voice effervesces, “Good morning, J-squad!” The boys at the back table, each of whom have J-names, look up and allow smiles to cross their faces. Julia Starr mirrors their grins and takes one last bite of her half-eaten oatmeal. The petite dark-haired woman, better known as Jules, winds her way through the room, doling out more personalized “good mornings” and high-fives. She’s magnetizing, an honest-to-goodness cheerleader for everyone in this place — the type of person you feel better for having met. But at the end of the day, Jules would say it’s not about her at all.
“There’s something about this atmosphere, these people,” Jules says of The CORE Project, Inc., the nonprofit corporation she established in 2020 to serve the area’s special needs community. She plops down on the wingback chair in the church’s library, likely the longest spell the mom of four will sit all day, and she speaks about the multi-pronged company.
The acronym “CORE” stands for “Creating Opportunities Reaching Everyone.” And Jules means everyone, saying, “We are here for whoever needs us.” A snapshot of individuals she and her team of 90 serve includes those with autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and learning disabilities. Even those considered borderline typical who are struggling in public school are welcome. And it’s not just children they’re eager to help. The Auburn University alum tells of a 60-year-old with Down Syndrome who recently toured the Hitt Road facility.
“We are here for people from diagnosis to death,” Jules assures, pointing out that individuals don’t “age out” of this program, making it unlike anything else in the region.
“I’ve always had a heart for people who I felt needed something,” Jules says when asked about the impetus for The CORE Project. “But it came out of a maternal need.” And lots of prayer.
Jules was 25 and working as a board-certified behavior analyst when two brothers with special needs, then-ages 4 and 5, entered her life and forever changed it. As the boys got older, she found herself struggling with the same things as her clients’ parents.
“I started to relate in a completely different way than I did as a provider. The panic, the worry of what’s next. And what do we do when we need a babysitter?”
Day-to-day difficulties gave way to full-blown panic when Jules’ oldest turned 18.
“We only have a few years until he turns 21, and then there’s nothing in this state that can house my son for the day because of his behavior problems. I realized I wasn’t the only parent panicking. A group of us got together to talk about our kids’ needs as they age and try to figure out what we were going to do about it.
“I was feeling the pull. Everything was getting heavy for me. I looked around and noticed everyone was leaving the state. You can go to Florida and get services, but that doesn’t make home any better. We’ve got to make home better. Our city is great. Our community is great. There are a lot of people here who would help, we just have to start connecting all of those resources.”
Jules prayed for an answer, saying she didn’t need a nudge; she needed a “good shove.” The next morning, her eldest son looked up and grabbed her hand. She remembers thinking, “Alright, let’s fix this. Let’s make something that works for everyone, where we remove obstacles and concerns and worry and panic.”
And so was born The CORE Project.
Jules steps out into the hallway and peeks into the church’s choir-room-turned-classroom. A student is hard at work with a speech therapist. As she observes, a sandy-haired Skyler walks by with a clipboard, taking the morning’s coffee orders. His spreadsheet is almost full.
“We have a COREfee Shop,” Jules says proudly, “as part of the CORE Life program.” She grins and keeps walking.
As early as age 14, individuals are able to integrate or fully transition to CORE Life, which is life-skills coaching and vocational training. “They can move at school age, still receive school, but really concentrate on what they can do,” Jules explains. “Our goal is to give them a look at a minimum of 10 jobs.” One of the jobs includes work contracted with Threaded Fasteners, Inc. “They give us orders, and we fill them. Our kids started outperforming their employees!”
Jules hopes that one day The CORE Project can acquire a vehicle to transport individuals to jobs in the community. “We’re not worried about lives being ‘rich’ with money; we’re worried about productive living. What I don’t want are 30- and 40-year-olds sitting in a corner coloring.”
CORE Life is just one prong of services available. The CORE Academy, another offering, is a year-round, K-12 school where instruction is given one-on-one or in small groups and is adapted to suit each student’s needs.
CORE ABA (applied behavior analysis therapy) is another integral prong. “That’s what they are doing in here,” Jules says as she re-enters the parish hall. Everyone is engaged in an activity, many of whom are using electronic talk pads to communicate with their therapists. As they are able, students are eased into the classroom setting.
“Some students do so well they leave here and go on to public or private schools,” Jules says as she walks from pod to pod, beaming as any proud mom would. “We even have one student who is now in all honors classes at Davidson.”
Jules steps outside, leaving the din of learning behind, and she peers out over seven wooded acres of peace. A therapist and her student, out for a stroll, walk by, crunching pine straw underfoot.
When The CORE Project started at the West Mobile location, there were only four students. In less than two years, the organization has expanded to include an additional two locations, now serving 62 families and four school systems — and Jules hopes to keep it growing. “The more people who collectively recognize the problem, the more resources come into this mission. Maybe on that list is someone who says, ‘I’ll give you this building over here so that you can serve 100 more kids.’”
In addition to on-site instruction, The CORE Project provides services to students enrolled in public or private schools. “We actually have two kids at St. Paul’s, and they’re doing beautifully,” Jules says, shading her eyes. “That’s the kind of model I want. Wherever parents want their kids, let me meet you there. I’m not trying to take their child and bring them here. If you’ve identified a problem or you’re feeling as heavy as you are right now, what can we do to relieve some of that? And if the answer is, ‘help my child,’ let us do that with you.”
Jules is also passionate about helping families as a whole. “In my opinion, one of the downfalls of specialized programs is that you teach to the child, but you forget about the family. The holistic approach of treating the unit has been revolutionary. Parents tell us their goals and dreams, and we strive for that. If they want to go out to eat as a family, we teach them as a family how to go out to eat. If they need help in church, we will come sit with them in church.”
CORE Respite, another service offered, is one Jules hopes to be almost exclusively a community resource. “The divorce rate in families with special needs kids is about 80 percent. I would tell parents, just drop your child off at Respite and go remind yourselves that you still like each other.”
One last prong of the multi-disciplinary program is CORE Clinical, which includes parent training, a mental health clinic that’s open to anyone in the community, and diagnosis of and treatment for emotional and behavioral problems.
“The reason no one has produced this model before is because it’s hard,” Jules says. And it’s not cheap. She cites the payroll as being $2.4 million. “It’s a labor-intensive job. But I don’t care how much money it costs or how many hours I work — the happy that I see in my two oldest and the weight that’s off my shoulders gives me purpose and gives them life.”
The clock ticks toward 9:30 now, and a mother named Lisa, leaving her son’s progress report meeting, sees Jules across the parking lot and walk-jogs over to exchange hellos.
“I don’t know what we would do if he wasn’t here,” Lisa says of son Grant. “There’s no anxiety or worry, and that’s the biggest blessing for special needs parents.”
The two hug goodbye, and on Lisa’s heels are parents Trista and Tony, also leaving their monthly meeting.
“When we got here, they started training us on how to use the talker with her,” Lisa says of 8-year-old daughter Alyson, who is nonverbal. “We were able to get inside her brain, and her behavior got better.” There’s been improvement in other areas, too. With the help of occupational therapy, Alyson is now able to hold her head up for longer and can use her finger to point. “We recently took her to the zoo for the first time.” Tony nods tearfully about the milestone.
“We don’t want people to need us,” Jules says as the couple walks away. “We want to put ourselves out of business. I want to make better day care workers, better Sunday school teachers, better teachers. Our community outreach is as equally important to me as what we do in-house. If we can make people not need services because we have more of an impact in our own community, then we become stronger for it. We are a better community when we can say we have seen this problem, we have banded together and are making strides to fix it.”
Jules steps into the sunlight, closes her eyes and enjoys a few more moments of quiet contemplation. It’s suitable that the Trussville, Alabama, native’s high school superlative was “Most Likely to Change the World.” She’s certainly off to a good start.