When Bryan and Betsy Gentry started Friday Night Lights, a recreational activity for adults with disabilities in January 2013, it was because they believed relationships transcend professions.
The Cleveland couple said they wanted to provide their extended family with a social outlet on Friday nights, which was as much about showing love as it was about filling a need.
The Gentrys said they love their former students and the students love them, calling Friday Night Lights more like “a ministry.”
“When I retired, some of the parents said, ‘Bryan, is there any way you and Betsy would stay involved?’” Bryan recalled. His eyes suddenly filled with tears. His wife put her hand on his.
“I get emotional when talking about this because it was really hard leaving them. One of our parents, who used to be a school teacher, asked, ‘Why don’t you do a program on Friday nights?’ She said when she taught school, in order to give the parents a break — she would have her students over and have activities.
“So Betsy and I got to thinking and we decided to do the same thing. We called it Friday Night Lights. We started with 28 students. Now we have 43. We also have a waiting list. Now we’re meeting at Prospect Elementary School, thanks to Principal Steve Montgomery. We have so much fun. We do softball tournaments, and flag football. we’re having a huge swim party at our next one. The highlight that we culminate the year with, is when we do a big shopping spree where the students go shopping for themselves, their parents, grandparents and siblings for Christmas.”
According to the Gentrys, they chose the name Friday Night Lights because all of their activities revolve around sports, it takes place on Fridays and it draws on the name of one of their favorite television programs. Most importantly, the recreational initiative is all about the disabled adults who enjoy an entertainment outlet.
“It’s the first Friday of every month,” Bryan said. “We provide the meals, all the activities and entertainment. It’s just wonderful.”
Betsy added, “We do luaus and we dance. Last year we had a 50s’ dance.”
Exactly how the Gentrys arrived at what they call their “life’s work” and made it a family affair is a story Betsy believes has all the characteristics of Divine providence.
According to the Gentrys, in 1998, their daughter, Brooke, was a junior in high school working as a peer tutor at Bradley Central High School, helping special needs students. She was also working with the Special Olympics at the time.
One day Brooke received a brochure regarding the International Special Olympics being held at Chapel Hill in North Carolina, close to Bryan’s hometown.
“At that time we decided we were going to take our family vacation and be volunteers at the Special Olympics,” Betsy explained. “Since Brooke played college tennis at Lee University, the family signed up to work the tennis venue at the Special Olympics in North Carolina. While we were there, they assigned Brooke to work with the players and assigned me and Bryan to the parking lot.
“After about 15 minutes working in the parking lot, Bryan said, ‘I do not want to be with cars. I want to be with people.’ So he ran and jumped on the tennis court with Brooke and started helping her. On the way home he kept talking about how he loved working with the Special Olympic athletes! People had asked him is this your job? Bryan said, ‘No. I’m in the business world.”
But now that he had tasted something far more rewarding than the thrill of victory, Bryan found himself drawn to a lifestyle of sacrifice unlike anything he ever experienced in all his years as a businessman.
Bryan, who was the director of Bradley County’s Emergency Medical Services at the time, made a life-changing decision. After having been in the business world for 20 years and majoring in social work in college, Bryan returned to his first love.
“Long story short — I resigned as soon as I got back and started working with special needs students,” Bryan said. “I started in 1999 and Betsy started in 1995.”
According to Bryan, who is retired, Fright Night Lights has a simple formula for fun and only one center of attention that he, his wife and several volunteers believe in.
“We make our main focus the students and the parents,” Bryan said. “Everything we do is about the students and the parents.”
Betsy, who worked for years as a transition coordinator for special need students at Bradley County Schools and who supervised Special Ed student teachers at Lee University, added, “This gives them an opportunity to have a social life. When I worked in public schools, one of my goals was to help the students transition out into the real world. The one thing that was missing is when they left school they had no social life.”
Thanks to Friday Night Lights a greater social life has become possible for many adults with disabilities with a fresh outlet for recreational activities as well as a need in the community being filled.
For many parents, one of the best things about Friday Night Lights is that the Gentrys are still involved with a group of affectionate people who have become a part of their family. There is a minimal fee to cover expenses at the event.