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CEI – Making a difference


Creative Enterprises, Inc. - Making a difference in the lives of our special needs citizens and their families

Bob Hartman’s sister knew her brother had a talent for art but when she encouraged him to attend Creative Enterprises Inc (CEI) for an art program, he balked.

(L-R): Mike Green, Stephanie Hansford, Mildred Brooks, Dijonae Coleman, and their instructor, Sumere Dole. The person in the helmet is Terry Christopher and between her and Sumere is John Mider. All Photos by Emmett Clower

At 50, he lived alternately with his brother and sister, was practically a recluse and was concerned about being around people. He finally decided to attend once a week. 

That was 10 years ago and today Hartman is not only attending five days a week and producing and selling beautiful art work but has gained tremendously in confidence and ability.

“Bob is happy and independent and can live alone for as long as two weeks at a time,” said CEI Executive Director Leigh McIntosh. “He was not able to do that before.” 

In addition, Hartman had shown his one-of-a-kind art at Hudgens Center for the Arts, the Gwinnett County Fair and Mason-Murur Art Gallery in Atlanta. He has sold his I Spy clay creations of flowers and fish ponds at Gwinnett’s Folk Fest for as much as $500.

McIntosh has spent practically a lifetime working with special needs adults but she will be the first to tell you that through the years, the teacher has only too often become the student. What she has learned in the past three decades, often from clients like Bob Hartman, has made a difference in hundreds of lives and not just those with special needs.

“We’ve learned so much in the past several years,” McIntosh said. “We used to think that all special needs adults needed to work but that’s not true. We’ve learned we need to look at the full person. What are their goals…their dreams?”

Whether they want to work or achieve other goals and dreams, socialization skills are necessary for success, she explained and that’s a lot of what happens at CEI.

An eye-opener was when CEI modeled their program after another program called Shift Happens which focuses on praise and positive reinforcement, engaging activities and caring relationships. McIntosh says that following those guidelines almost ensures an absence of clients acting out.

McIntosh wants people to know that CEI is not day care and it is not a mini-institution, but it is a place for teaching and learning. “I don’t think people realize that as a non-profit agency CEI helps the whole community,” she said.

Because the institutions for special needs people are being closed, they either are in group homes or live at home. The latter puts a huge strain on families when caregivers cannot work. It cuts income and thus affects the community, McIntosh explained. When they know their child is safe, happy and productive, caregivers can enjoy life and work if they need or want to.

“I am really glad we have moved away from the old mindset that these people need to be hidden away in institutions,” she continued. “CEI has a genuine desire to assist our clients in living their lives to their fullest potential in a safe environment. We do not believe that all people have the same goals. Just like people without disabilities have things they are passionate about, people with disabilities have a variety of interests too.

“We try to help them find jobs in their area of interest if that is what they want. Each has a plan and works to make it happen. It’s their choice and like most of us, they are happier if they are doing what they want.”

With a mission of “assisting adults with disabilities and others with barriers to employment in maximizing their potential,” the 501 (c) (3) has several opportunities for clients to achieve their goals and be productive.

A tour around the CEI campus which is located on Hi Hope Lane in Lawrenceville is a lot different than one you might have taken 20 years ago when the organization was comprised of one building and a green house. Today, CEI has seven buildings that house a variety of activities going on and as you walk from one to the other there is a feeling of happy, contented people, clients and staff alike.

On this particular Monday morning several clients in the Workshop are very meticulously bundling a variety of colors of shoestrings and boxing them for Yankz, a local company. But most of the about 90 clients who come on that day are in “homeroom” or HUB as they call it. There are eight or nine HUBs where clients work on their goals with a teacher – a personal coach or PC as their students call them. Goals might be in the area of exercise, learning about nutrition, cooking, writing their name, using the computer, sign language or how to tip at a restaurant. One class was not there because they had gone out for breakfast.

They also spend time talking about their problems or anything that is bothering them,” McIntosh explained, adding that the HUB groups become very close as exemplified by one client who, two weeks after a mastectomy came back to “be with her family” because she couldn’t wait any longer.

For some clients working with plants is very therapeutic so the CEI Greenhouse was established several years ago. Open to the public spring through August, it is filled with beautiful plants of all kinds. 

“This place is amazing in the spring,” said Karl Heisman a CEI board member. “And the prices are more than competitive.” 

Several cats that roam the greenhouse and garden are part of the on-site licensed CEI Cat Shelter that offers clients the opportunity to care for the cats and kittens which are available to the public for adoption. 

“Many can’t have animals at home so they enjoy them here,” McIntosh said.

One of the seven buildings now houses the newest venture – a thrift store stock full of all kinds of household items, books and CDs. In addition to great bargains, McIntosh said that the store offers an opportunity to train those who want to work, and to provide items for clients in need. Managing the store is only one hat worn by employee Latifah Shakir who also teaches at the center.

The art program is housed separately and is run by an artist who modeled it after a program in California.  “He requires three things,” McIntosh said, smiling, “It has to be their own creation, they can’t waste supplies and they can’t fight. 

“Some, such as Bob Hartman are good artists and if it’s original they can and do sell. It provides some income for some which is great because any way we can figure out for them to be productive and make money is good for them.” A marketing class is taught to provide the client-artists skills related to selling their work.  

The CEI marketing class also holds art sales at Steve’s Discount Framing in Lawrenceville twice a year with the next one coming up in the fall. Some, like Hartman have also exhibited at Hudgens Center for the Arts and other events.

McIntosh was so impressed with Hartman’s art she commissioned him to make her an I Spy fish pond. Colorful with fish, flowers, a couple of cats and a special red ginger man bridge, it’s something she says she will always treasure.

Totally separate from the CEI compound, the Day Habilitation Center is located on Hi Hope Road. It was created for those who do not have a goal of becoming employed and whose families are more interested in them learning daily living skills. “These are people who may be non-verbal, and need help with eating and getting to the bathroom,” McIntosh said.

The center is run by Gail Green, who was a volunteer for many years because her brother and son were at CEI. She explained that these clients work more on hygiene, manners, simple meal preparation, gardening, arts and crafts and exercising. “These are things that will help their caregiver,” she said. 

They also read and talk about current events. “We discuss the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said. “They need and want to be informed.”

Beautiful and sometimes intricate art is displayed on the walls and on shelves lining the walls. Some pieces show the particular artist’s hopes and dreams as in one who decorated a discarded library book with clippings from a magazine to show that she wanted to have a tea party. Others are decorated with ribbons and strings; another shows a garden collage.

“These are called Altered Books and each tells a story,” Green explained. “The Gwinnett County Library had a contest and one of our clients won second place. No matter what their level, they can do art.” 

A garden outside where some like to work has tomatoes, peppers, basil and thyme. “Every year they have a theme and this year the theme is a pizza garden,” Green said. “Last year it was a salsa garden.”

As a new board member Heisman has been amazed at how CEI transforms special needs people. “We want to get the word out about CEI and what they do. We would love for people to come and do tours and understand the need for an organization like this,” he stated.

As with most non-profits, money is always a need. 

“CEI operates on a budget of less than $2,000,000 annually,” McIntosh said “With this money we have approximately 27 employees and provide services for about 130 people at any given time. We run a tight ship to make ends meet.”

Grants and donations help offset the costs of running the program and CEI receives Medicaid funding to serve clients on Medicaid Waivers. 

“While that funding goes a long way toward providing services, it does not pay enough to provide the services we provide to our clients,” she added. “For instance, Medicaid says they pay for transportation to our program. They have included in their Waiver a fee of approximately $8.00 per day to pay for roundtrip transportation to our program. The actual cost is $26 per day for many of our clients and if someone needs a lift van, that cost is $65 per day. The most we can bill for a Medicaid Waiver client is $7.96 per day and for many people that rate is $45 per day. When you do the math, you see that a wheelchair client uses $65 for transportation and CEI gets, at most, $7.96 per day for the client. This does not begin to cover the costs to provide services for them and it forces us to be very fiscally conservative when serving our clients.”

A fund-raiser, the Fifth Annual Ride for the Challenged is set for September 28 and motorcyclists who are interested can find an entry form on the website at

As the executive director since 1981, McIntosh has seen many changes in how to relate to special needs adults. “It’s been a process realizing that we need to look at the whole person – their problems, their needs, their choices, and adapting our program in that direction,” she said.

Each has something to offer and they enrich my life and the lives of their teachers.” 

For more information on CEI go to or call 770-962-3908 for a tour.
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