By Anna Grace Moore
Photos by Untold Imagery
Brian and Chrissy Schubert say the trajectory of their lives’ purpose changed for the better when they adopted the lens their daughter, Ady Schubert, uses to perceive her own journey. Following a career opportunity, Brian and Chrissy moved their family to Birmingham in 2011.
Several months later in July 2011, then 2-year-old Ady began regressing developmentally, losing several milestones she had accomplished. She quit responding to her name, became anxiety ridden and frequently had inconsolable outbursts.
She was soon diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder “ASD.” Chrissy says learning of Ady’s diagnosis felt to them like mourning the death of their child.
“There would be an absence in her eyes some days, where I could be staring right at her, and she wouldn’t even look up,” Chrissy says.
At this point, Ady developed serious anxiety and began hurting and biting herself. Over the next three years, Brian and Chrissy struggled to cope with helping Ady live a full life, while also managing their business and raising their other two children, Bailey and Camden.
Chrissy recalls Ady’s growing irritation with fabrics and her refusing to wear clothes and shoes. Nearly every morning, Chrissy says she would end up wrapping Ady in a blanket, taking her to school and with the help of three or four other therapists, holding her down while at school to get her dressed.
Brian and Chrissy also struggled to afford all of the expenses Ady needed as they traveled across the country, meeting with every school and specialist willing to help. In 2015, several of Brian and Chrissy’s friends created a fundraiser with a goal of $7,000 to help pay for Ady’s needs, and miraculously, the fundraiser yielded just shy of $30,000.
Chrissy says she and Brian felt overwhelmed–this time, however, with hope.
“We wanted to take all the things that we struggled with or hoped for and use those things to help other families tangibly,” Chrissy says.
This ushered in a unique season for Chrissy as she began “diving into prayer” like never before. Chrissy says she began having dreams that God was about to do something really amazing in Ady.
Later on, Chrissy involved Ady in a new, kinesthetic therapy aimed at helping nonverbal children communicate effectively. For the first time in eight years, Ady began communicating.
She would point to block letters, spelling small words, then simple sentences. After communicating with Ady clearly for the first time, Chrissy says she was so consumed with emotion and crying happy tears.
Chrissy recalls that Ady attempted to comfort her, spelling, “Mom, I’m okay.” Chrissy says she began mourning again, but this time, she says she mourned the fact that she mourned her hopes and dreams for her daughter.
“I underestimated her like she didn’t understand me,” Chrissy says. “I deprived this child for almost eight years of that honor she deserved because all I could see was the self injury and lack of clothes.”
Ady continued to progress in her new spelling therapy, even creating a poem titled, “I’m Autistic and Free.” She also began spelling out conversations, detailing all of the things she had experienced and how she viewed the world.
“We started to understand and grasp what this child in her sensory nightmare was enduring,” Chrissy says. “While [her world] is beautiful, it’s also very overwhelming.”
One of the most impactful moments with Ady, Chrissy says, was when she learned Ady’s definition of love. Ady began spelling out letters and in them, talked a lot about needing “more love.”
Chrissy says Ady would write over and over, “Mom, can you love me more?” Chrissy couldn’t fathom how Ady didn’t feel loved.
Chrissy hugged, kissed and consoled her daughter everyday. Finally, Chrissy says she asked Ady to write down three things she needed to feel loved.
Ady spelled out that she needed Chrissy to teach her, to read to her and to talk to her as if she was listening. Ady, in her way, explained that she often feels like a bird in a cage.
People walk by and observe, but they don’t speak to her–they speak about her. Ady would spell in her letters her vision for “a place for people like her.”
Chrissy says during this communication, she promised Ady that she would always talk to her like she’s listening–even if Ady couldn’t make eye contact with her. She also promised never to put her in an environment that underestimated her skill set.
“She’s just simply amazing, and we attribute that to honoring her and speaking to her like a normal human being,” Chrissy says.
This realization led both Brian and Chrissy on a hunt to find a community that would meet Ady’s definition of love, and after numerous years of searching, they were almost ready to give up. It wasn’t until they toured The Brookwood Community, “BIG,” which is based in Georgetown, Texas, that their hope was restored.
BIG is a Christian, vocational community that provides a safe haven for adults with special needs to learn and practice skills-based trades, while also helping them feel loved and respected in an environment where they, too, can make a positive difference in the world.
“It was like a breath of heaven just knocked us over,” Chrissy says of BIG. “There was something different about this place. It was unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.”
Those with special needs at BIG are called “citizens,” which allows them to feel more dignified than solely being referred to by their functional disabilities. The citizens come to work everyday and create pieces of art and baked goods, tend the garden on the grounds and more.
“I would walk by, and they would show me the things they were creating,” Chrissy says. “Even cooler was the staff and citizen interaction. It was so different from anything I had seen. It was so honorable. It was friendship-based instead of [codependent].”
The most impressive theme of BIG, Chrissy recalls, was how the nonprofit was changing the way the world views people with ASD and functional disabilities.
“We knew we couldn’t just create this for Ady,” Chrissy says. “This was needed for all of our adults [with special needs].”
Brian and Chrissy met with the founder of BIG and began drawing up plans to create a vocational program for teens and adults with special needs in Birmingham. Using BIG’s model, Brian and Chrissy created Ady’s BIG Army, named for their daughter and her desire to create a community where people like her feel accepted.
Ady’s BIG Army was launched on Feb. 14, 2023. Because Ady always talked about love in her communication, Brian and Chrissy felt that Valentine’s Day was the best day to launch their nonprofit.
Since its inception, Ady’s BIG Army has grown to include 12 citizens with a goal of adding a new citizen every month. The nonprofit does not yet have its own brick and mortar location but meets in Lakeside Baptist Church, Monday-Friday.
Everyday, Ady’s BIG Army’s citizens come to work and begin their day in devotion and worship. They then split into teams, rotating workstations and creating products to sell to fundraise for a place Ady’s BIg Army can call “home.”
The citizens make fudge, soap, spa products, jewelry and even charcuterie boards, too. Not only are they learning wonderful skills, but they are also getting paid a small paycheck for their labor, too.
“We have noticed since we launched Ady’s BIG Army, by giving our citizens love, honor and the purpose that they need, citizens that were never able to make it through a program before, make it through our program,” Chrissy says.
Looking forward, Chrissy says that she and Brian are looking to purchase three-to-five acres to expand the nonprofit’s facets and create a permanent home for the organization. Ady’s BIG Army will also host its first gala in spring 2024 to auction off several of the citizens’ paintings to fundraise for their new dream.
The most rewarding aspect of creating Ady’s BIG Army, Chrissy says, is seeing her daughter delight in her work, happy to be around people and feel as though she, too, is important in her community. Both Brian and Chrissy say they will continue to foster such fellowship through Ady’s BIG Army and hope these dreams become reality for many more citizens for years to come.
For more information about Ady’s BIG Army, visit adysarmy.org/adys-big-army.