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A teacher at heart, Leigh McIntosh builds business from need to help others

When Leigh McIntosh was a child, she spent a lot of time helping her mother teach. Being one of those students who got all the reading, writing and ‘rithmatic stuff, a lot of her day was spent helping others who were having trouble with those basic Three R’s. 

A teacher at heart, Leigh McIntosh builds business from need to help others

“It was part of my normal school day,” said McIntosh, 64, by phone on Tuesday. “I helped the others who struggled to understand. It’s always been a part of my makeup to want to help others who struggled to be able to learn and keep up.”

Knowing her career choices back then for a woman was limited to being a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary, McIntosh wanted more.

“I didn’t want to be limited in my choices and while I have always been a teacher at heart, I knew I didn’t want to be a basic teacher. I knew I loved working with underdogs.”

So, the longtime Grayson resident and product of Gwinnett County Schools focused her efforts and tailored her career goals on becoming something more than a conventional teacher. 

“We moved here to Grayson from Atlanta when I was in first grade and it was such a change, moving from the city to the country, from what I’d been used to,” she said. “I just love the people here. I just knew they hadn’t been exposed to the things here in Gwinnett that I’d been exposed to. Back then they didn’t have Special Ed.”

McIntosh attended Grayson Elementary, which only had two first-grade classes at the time. She wanted to do more for those who couldn’t help themselves.

“I always wanted to help kids somehow,” McIntosh said. “My mother was a teacher and I always had to help any of the children that were struggling.”

Upon graduation from high school, McIntosh attended Georgia State University, receiving her undergraduate degree in mental health and then earned her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from the University of Georgia. 

“My career has been in counseling,” she said.  

McIntosh got her start in the field, working for Gwinnett Mental Health, which is now ViewPoint Heath, while a sophomore at Georgia State. 

“They started Creative Enterprises that year with the plan for it to incorporate as a not-for-profit and that happened in 1979,” she said. “When we started we assisted adults with disabilities to be as independent as possible. We helped teach them job skills if that’s what they want to do.”

Creative Enterprises worked with students and young adults once they completed their education with Gwinnett County Schools, which released students with a certificate of attendance after their 21st birthday.

“The people with disabilities that we served from the school system did not get a regular diploma, but a certificate of attendance,” McIntosh said. “That terminology may have changed over time. In those early days before the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities did not have the opportunities they have now.”

Today presents more opportunities for individuals with disabilities than ever before, both in career and personal enrichment because of the ADA.  

“I can’t even tell you how many parents told me their doctors had advised them to (take) out their children in institutions and forget they had ever been born,” she said. “Thank goodness that no longer exists.” 

According to McIntosh, a lot of students had nowhere to go once they finished with their high school education. 

“Up until then, we worked with Georgia Vocational Rehab, who worked with the schools,” she said. “We don’t focus on what a person can’t do. Our focus is what they can do.”
{module title=”Creative Enterprises Staff and Participants at work.”}

Incorporated as a not-for-profit 501 (c)(3) Community Rehabilitation Program in 1979, Creative Enterprises has provided employment opportunities along with social and life skills training to individuals with disabilities for the past 40 years. This is accomplished through on and off-site work training, job placement assistance, educational programs and community involvement events, along with a variety of additional resources.

“Creativity has been the cornerstone of our operations defining our culture of providing a wide spectrum of programs and services that allow persons with disabilities, and other barriers to employment, the opportunities to explore a variety of offerings that fulfill, challenge and encourage them to excel,” McIntosh said. “We help individuals maximize their potential and shine with their own unique creativity. Our programs and services are diverse and allow for individual personal growth, along with the opportunity to explore options that might otherwise be unavailable to persons with disabilities.”

McIntosh, who will celebrate her 40th anniversary with Creative Enterprises this year, has carved out a nice niche helping others foster an attitude for success. 

Creative Enterprises StaffCreative Enterprises most recent staff photo prior to COVID (2020)

“We accept each other for our own unique individual contributions while providing a caring environment where persons with disabilities can feel safe and connected,” she said. “Utilizing ‘Shift Happens’ principles, we use the three-pronged approach of keeping people engaged at all times, developing caring relationships with each individual, and using lavish praise and positive reinforcement as a proactive behavior management strategy to reduce negative behaviors. All individuals, with all levels of abilities, are treated with respect and appreciation. Communication is the key to this successful model, and achieved through honest dialog regarding expectations, goals and accomplishments.” 

McIntosh’s methods have generated longstanding results, allowing Creative Enterprises to expand from its Hi Hope Lane location in Lawrenceville to Forsyth County and Cumming. Creative Enterprises expanded its programs into Forsyth County, located at 410 Pilgrim Mill Road in Cumming in 2016.

“We work with local school districts to help with students,” she said. “We’ve been able to expand our methods to other counties in the metro Atlanta area.” 

Creative Enterprises saw more than 200 students daily prior to the shelter in place lockdown due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. “The fortunate part for us is that we were already utilizing ZOOM meetings as a teaching tool when the lockdown hit last March,” McIntosh said. “We were able to quickly transition to the new normal and we’re back online by April.”

Creative Enterprises serviced its clients virtually until it was able to open its doors again in January of this year. While the in-person numbers haven’t rebounded to their pre-pandemic levels, McIntosh said they are still seeing about 30-to-35 clients in-person on a daily basis. The rest continue to access services virtually online via the Creative Enterprises website. A lot of their online classes continue to draw 70-to-80 participants daily.

McIntosh is the mother of four adult children. Two of her daughters have joined the family business. Kline Couch, who earned a degree in Psychology is an Employment Services Manager, while Sydney Couch, who earned a degree in business is a Production Manager.

While she doesn’t consider Creative Enterprises a family business, all of her children have dedicated their adult careers to making life better for the people they served. 

“All four of my kids have a love for our population and help in different ways,” McIntosh said. “One daughter is a teacher and teaches children with disabilities in her classroom though it is not a special ed class. My son does marketing, but they use him to coordinate events to plan for and include people with disabilities.” 

With no plans to retire any time soon, McIntosh continues to enjoy the direction in which Creative Enterprises is heading.

“We have good people here who know what they’re doing and have a love for working with people who need a little extra care,” she said.

Editor’s Note: The purpose of commissioning this article is to shine light on an inspirational and creative leader in our community, serving the special needs community and many more. Her service is an inspiration to many, including us.  ~ Auveed Bagheri Cawthon, Editor and Co-Publisher.