Branching Out

Friends turn caring into a career with business devoted to adults with intellectual disabilities

Persons of Interest

Wendi Strickland ’04 (left) and Jessee Helbert ’04, M.Ed. ’05, ‘took a leap’ to start Branches of Life.

Wendi Strickland ’04 (left) and Jessee Helbert ’04, M.Ed. ’05, ‘took a leap’ to start Branches of Life.

As students at Longwood, Jessee Helbert ’04, M.Ed. ’05, and Wendi Strickland ’04, say they gained an appreciation for lifelong learning. As special education teachers, they witnessed firsthand how many adults with intellectual disabilities didn’t have the opportunity to continue learning and growing after leaving school.

“We were finding a big gap between high school and day programs for older adults,” said Helbert. “There was a lack of services and support for finding employment and educational opportunities. Somany adults were just staying at home.”

Not ones to sit by and do nothing when there is a need to fill, Helbert and Strickland decided to get to work. While still full-time teachers, the two began the process of building a business designed to leverage their skills and concerns to help this underserved community. The result was Branches of Life, founded in Chester in 2013.

“We took a leap,” said Helbert. We believed in equality and inclusion, but we had to find a way to keep the lights on.”

Their leap involved becoming “Janes of all trades,” as Strickland describes it. Over the course of several years, they worked through the licensing process with the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, developed a business plan and put together a strong team of like-minded people.

“We are a person-centered organization,” said Strickland. “Our philosophy is that everybody is capable, and we want to give them the space, the skills and the opportunities to do what they want to do.”

Today, Branches of Life works with adults 18 and older with intellectual disabilities or autism. The business provides job training, career prep and life skills. Whether a client’s goals are to be working and more independent, or to learn to read or drive a motorized chair, Helbert and Strickland will find a way to make it happen.

“It’s fulfilling to work with people who are not typically treated as equal or competent and to help them,” said Helbert. I’ve always known I wanted to be in this field, but I didn’t know I’d be owning my own business.”

Strickland agreed. “It’s amazing to have something that is yours. You get up for work, and, if you don’t like something, you change it,” she said. “It’s also great to be doing something that we are passionate about.”

Recently Branches of Life (online at has partnered with the School of Special Education and Disability Policy at VCU and the Partnership for People with Disabilities to help adults with more significant challenges.

Dan Cawley