All Kids Included

A crowd gathered in a room almost too small to hold them. Voices laughed, argued and whispered in anticipation. Nobody else could fit through the door. This was the scene in Capernaum of Galilee 2,000 years ago. Jesus was about to speak. Meanwhile, four buddies were trying to figure out how to get a paralyzed friend within reach of the Son of God. They solved the accessibility problem by cutting a hole in the roof and lowering their friend to Jesus’ feet. Christ recognized the faith of the whole crew. That faith offered healing, and wholeness, not only for the paralyzed man, but for everyone else in the room, too.

Not much has changed in 2,000 years. Works of faith and friendship are still happening in Capernaum, and it sure looks a lot like Young Life. Take the Capernaum Partnership Ministry in the Washington, D.C. metro area. A room is full to capacity with teenagers laughing, shouting and whispering. They’re eating pizza, playing games and about to hear how much Jesus loves them. There’s no need to cut a hole in the roof, however. Able-bodied football players and able-minded bookworms are sitting side by side with kids who can’t run or write or speak or arm wrestle. It doesn’t matter. They’re all just kids, and they’re all within reach of the Son of God.
 
Capernaum’s beginnings
Capernaum is Young Life’s ministry to kids with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Nick Palermo, who is now the mission director of Capernaum, piloted the ministry in San Jose, Calif., in the 1980s. Almost 15 years later, when Capernaum had spread across cities on the West Coast, John Wagner, regional director of the Washington, D.C. Metro Region, approached Palermo. Capernaum had not yet reached the East Coast, and Wagner had a special reason to bring it there. His third child, David, has Down Syndrome. After talking with Palermo, Wagner enlisted the help of Pam Harmon, who subsequently joined the D.C. Young Life staff to work with Capernaum.

A new vision
From the beginning, the Capernaum project in D.C. had its own flavor. Throughout the 1990s in California, kids with disabilities had their own clubs, outings and camp sessions. As Capernaum spread through 22 cities and three foreign countries, it continued to follow this founding example.

But after talking with the disabled services community in D.C., Harmon became aware of another enormous unmet need. “Kids with disabilities are excluded and separated for so much of their lives,” she said. “When I started, they told me how much they wanted to be included in Young Life activities with ‘typical’ kids, not in a separate club. So our vision for Capernaum [has been] as an inclusion ministry.”

Inclusion meant getting kids of all abilities together and treating them all like teenagers. It took some careful planning and logistics from Harmon and a host of volunteers with vans, but one by one, kids with disabilities began to participate in six typical Young Life clubs in the Washington, D.C. Metro Region. And for many of them, the relationships with their able-bodied peers have spilled over into school and  the community.
 
One of the kids who’d felt separated most of his life was Will. At 15, Will was outgoing, active and tired of spending time with his parents, like most other teens, but he was different from other kids in one way. Will had Cerebral Palsy. Unable to talk, he communicated through an augmented speech device, attended a school for students with disabilities and felt like he had no friends.

Through Harmon’s help, Will was able to attend a club for Yorktown Public High School. After a few months enjoying Young Life, he requested to be transferred out of his special education program and mainstreamed into Yorktown for his junior year. The first day of school, as he courageously made his way to classes, at least a hundred kids who recognized Will from Young Life club gave him the standard greeting. “Hey, Will, what’s up?” He knew he was among friends.
 
Bringing club to school
There were many others like Will who could attend typical clubs, but there were still plenty of kids with special needs who weren’t being reached. Because of time, transportation or physical difficulty, it wasn’t always possible to take students to evening clubs. So in the spring of 2000, Harmon brought club to the students enrolled in a special education program through a monthly pizza party. She asked kids in area youth groups and Young Life to help. She was hardly prepared for the response.

Currently, an entourage of kids participates at these pizza party clubs. At last count, there were 60 students who attended regularly, and about 30 of them are kids with disabilities. It’s hard to discern which group gets more out of the event. Everyone eats pizza and laughs at the skits. Then everyone hears how God’s love can meet them where they are, making each life extraordinary.
 
Real miracles
Maggie Posey, a busy high school senior, has experienced this. She visits the special needs school to attend the pizza parties. There she met a girl named Natasha and became friends with her.

Maggie discovered how powerful the companionship of a Capernaum friend is during a leadership meeting. When the group was asked to draw pictures of people who had influenced their lives, Natasha carefully crafted a picture of Maggie.

“Then, all of a sudden, she broke into prayer and started praying over me that God would work in my life and touch my heart and bring me good things all the time,” Maggie said. “I still get goose bumps when I think about it.”

If able-bodied kids like Maggie have eased the loneliness of many students with disabilities, Capernaum’s impact on the other students has been just as palpable. “When you are around people with special needs, you never stop learning,” Maggie said. “The relationship can change both lives. I have learned that you can never go down the waterslide enough times. I have learned sign language and the power of a smile. I have learned to be grateful for the little things.”

That’s the miracle of Capernaum, Harmon said.  “We have kids eating lunch together and interacting at social events outside of school,” she said. “We have parents who tell me that their [disabled] child has never had a friend until they became involved in Young life. We have typical kids looking at careers in teaching special education, typical kids who choose to do their volunteer senior projects at a school for kids with significant disabilities, typical kids who are reaching out and nurturing someone who they may not have noticed before.”

Works of faith and friendship are indeed still happening in Capernaum. Meanwhile, the need grows. Nationwide, 2,520 kids with special needs attend a Capernaum club weekly, but there’s plenty of work to do. It’s work that makes a difference, Harmon said. “Kids are seeing, in action, that God loves each of us just the way we are, with our quirks and differences,” she said. “And we’re all within reach of the Son of God.”