When Rebecca Bratley wakes up in the morning, she starts her day with a devotional. After that, she delves into artwork — usually painting or working with ceramics. From there, she eats lunch, exercises, goes to classes and interacts with volunteer groups. At the end of the day, she does her chores with friends, plays on her iPad and just relaxes before dinner.

Bratley, who is approaching her 40th birthday, has Down’s syndrome, but that hasn’t stopped her from living a fun and fulfilling life — thanks to a community called The Mustard Seed.

About 35 years ago, a group of concerned parents got together and worried aloud about what would happen when their children with special needs aged out of the public school system.

“When these children were born, many of their parents were told they wouldn’t live to be adults, but they were told wrong,” said Mandy Sisson, community relations director for The Mustard Seed. “They were looking for something for their children to do when they were done with school.”

So the parents bought a home just off Lakeland Drive in Flowood with the idea that their kids could do some vocational work during the day — and The Mustard Seed took root.

Today, The Mustard Seed is home to 42 “seedsters,” some of whom live there full time, and others who attend a weekday program.

“For once in their life, they aren’t in a special class by themselves. They’re on a campus where everyone is just like them,” Sisson said. “It’s really heartwarming to see these parents come onto our campus and find a spot for their seedster.”

What started as a simple house in 1981 has grown into a 14.5-acre campus, which includes two residential homes, swimming pool, gift shop, workshop, multipurpose activity center, classrooms and a ceramics studio.

But in their ceramics studio, seedsters aren’t just creating pottery to stay busy; they create it to stay open. The artwork they spend their time on is sold and and the money is put toward the program’s operating budget, which helps keep tuition costs low compared to similar places. Sisson said 60 percent of the program’s operating budget comes from donors and a whopping 20 percent comes directly from ceramic sales.

“Much of our budget comes from donations, and some people aren’t able to make monetary donations, but they can support us through purchasing ceramics,” Sisson said. “It helps us spread our mission with people everywhere.”

In 2007, that mission spread all the way to Minnesota when Rebecca Fountain saw a magazine ad for two hand-painted ceramic goblets made by seedsters and decided she had to have them. A friend bought them for her, and her Mustard Seed artwork collection began. A few years later, Fountain moved to Memphis and became a regular face at the program.

“Each time I visit, I am in awe of their unparalleled talent coupled with their unbridled joy,” Fountain said. “The Mustard Seed is an extraordinary place that spreads love, acceptance, compassion and grace to all. From reading devotions to watching them paint to having lively discussions and dance parties, my heart is filled and spirit revived each time I walk through the doors.”

Mustard Seed artwork has become a Made in Mississippi favorite for people across the state and country. The handmade ceramics are especially popular at gift-giving times —a woman just ordered 200 ornaments to give as favors at her wedding — and have even made their way to the Miss America Pageant.

“Years ago, Miss Mississippi was competing at Miss America and had to take one thing from her state to give every contestant,” Sisson said. “She gave them all a Mustard Seed ornament. She could have chosen so many other things, but I think that’s a testament to how special Mustard Seed ceramics are.”

While the Mustard Seed mission and ceramics have created a buzz outside Mississippi, Sisson said it’s Mississippians — volunteers who do everything from assisting with yard work and teaching classes to painting fingernails and cooking casseroles — that help make the program a success.

“As far as people in Mississippi, they have been so good to us through their monetary donations, their gifts of time as volunteers, supporting our gift shop by purchasing ceramics and their prayerful support of our sweet seedsters,” she said.

For Rebecca’s mother, Mary Bratley, The Mustard Seed has been a saving grace.

“The Mustard Seed has given Rebecca the opportunity to continue to grow mentally and spiritually,” she said. “She continues to learn to be more independent and to be more responsible.

“When Rebecca was born, we had no idea what 40 would be like, but we trusted God to show us,” Bratley said. “We thank Him every day for Rebecca, and we thank Him everyday for The Mustard Seed, a blessed, Christ-centered place where Rebecca and all of her friends are being given the opportunity everyday to be all that God would have them be.”

The Mustard Seed gift shop, located at 1085 Luckney Road in Brandon, is open year-round Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and every second Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. An Open House will be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 3 with Bells of Faith Performances at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Gift shop hours will extend to 6 p.m. Mondays through Dec. 12. For information visit mustardseedinc.org or visit them on Facebook.

The Mustard Seed sprouts valuable ceramics

Mary Margaret Halford

Mary Margaret Halford is a Vicksburg native and graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. While at Southern Miss, she served two terms as the executive editor of The Student Printz campus newspaper, where she won awards for breaking news coverage, feature writing and general excellence. She spent three years as a news intern at The Vicksburg Post before working at The Sun Herald in Biloxi as an education and weather reporter. Mary Margaret now lives in Vicksburg, where she is an editor at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineer Research and Development Center.