Happiness Bag celebrates 50 years in the community
June 17—For Jodi Moan, a concert at the Happiness Bag was just supposed to represent a summer job helping people with disabilities. She was taking a break from Indiana State University, where she had played women’s basketball on a scholarship. Fast forward 36 years: Summer employment quickly became a passion, and today she’s the facility’s general manager, a title she’s held for 23 years.
“When I first walked through the door, I never thought in a million years that I would still be here,” she recalls. But “from the moment one enters the [original] settling on South Seventh Street, the feeling of acceptance and complete, unconditional love from the friends was something immediate and unlike anything I had experienced before.” (“Friend” is the favorite name of the customers of Happiness Bag).
Moan was offered other jobs, some of which paid far more, but, she said, “leaving the friends I had come to know and love was not an option.” She added: “It was never a typical ‘job’, [it] certainly wasn’t about the money, but it was always about the incredible opportunity to be surrounded by some of the most loving, kind and tolerant people I’ve ever come across.”
Happiness Bag provides educational and recreational programs and other services for children and adults with mental and physical disabilities. Curiously, it began life as a traveling theater company adjacent to ISU.
Its name comes from what is said to be a Korean tradition similar to the Western Christmas stocking, only used year round.
In 1987, the organization moved away from theatrical arts to focus more on the educational and recreational areas of programming for people with disabilities, helping people ages 5 through adulthood, as well as bringing support for their families. . In 1997 it moved to its current location, sitting on six acres behind the Wabash Valley Fairgrounds. It serves about 250 friends and plans to expand its facilities soon to accommodate more.
In the new location, “we started to provide more sports and recreation for our people,” Moan said. “It was about promoting an active lifestyle.” Happiness Bag has become the coordinating center for Special Olympics Indiana – Vigo County, which will host a statewide competition Friday through Sunday in Terre Haute.
“We’ve evolved further since that change,” added Moan. “A lot of our friends didn’t have a lot of opportunities for the programs once they finished their formal education. If they weren’t employable, there was a shelter workshop at the time, which wasn’t for everyone. We started the adult day program to give them the opportunity to go to a program or facility where they can work on maintaining life skills. They can learn something again with the eventual aim of being more independent.
Moan’s friends like to venture out into the community, ring the Salvation Army bells at Christmas and help plant gardens. “Our friends love giving back and making new friends,” she said.
“They’re usually always positive, they don’t see the negativity in the world that we see,” Moan added. “Once you hang out with my friends, they leave a mark on your heart, on your soul, and not because you feel sorry for them. It’s their personality and because of their outlook on things.”
Bernice “Bernie” Fonyuy sits on the board of Happiness Bag. “He’s a very special person,” she says of Moan. “Everyone who works in this field is special because the salary is not that high and they learn to love and nurture the individual as much as they can. All Happiness Bag friends love Jodi. We love Jodi and we don’t know what we would do without her.”
Rich, Fonyuy’s non-verbal special-needs son, has cerebral palsy and has been going to Happiness Bag since he was 5 (he’s 44 now). “He went to daycare, the summer program and now that he’s older they provide his residential staff 24/7,” she said. “He grew up there. They helped him grow. They encourage him to be as independent as possible. Without Happiness Bag’s support at the time, it would have been very, very difficult.”
Jennifer Grinstad has been coming to Happiness Bag for even longer than Moan has been, since she was 16 nearly 40 years ago. She was in a production of “Alice in Wonderland” back when Happiness Bag emphasized drama and competed in the Special Olympics every year in ramp bowling. She once qualified for nationals in Louisiana.
Grinstad has a playful sense of humor that she doesn’t hesitate to direct at Moan, even when Moan is seated directly in front of her. “She can’t stand much,” Grinstad said. “She gives me a lot of advice, like staying out of trouble.” Without Happiness Bag to visit, she added, “I would probably stay home and be bored.”
Although Moan and other Happiness Bag employees like to refer to their charges as “friends,” Grinstad considers the place family. “It’s my first family,” she said.
On June 25, Happiness Bag will be sponsoring a “Price is Right” fundraiser (coincidentally, the game show is also celebrating its 50th anniversary). On July 23, it will host a meeting of employees and the first sod of the ground for the new extension of its establishment.
It’s been a turbulent half-century for Happiness Bag.
Moan said: “Looking at where we started 50 years ago, where we were when I started and seeing where we are now and where we want to go and grow is very difficult, but so amazing and something that drives me to keep pushing to make things even better for those who follow.”
David Kronke can be reached at 812-231-4232 or [email protected]