It Does Take a "Village"!

In the Bible, the word "Capernaum" means "village of comfort." It's a fitting name for Young Life's ministry with kids with special needs. Because of their disabilities, these kids often face even greater feelings of loneliness, lack of purpose and loss of direction than their typical peers. This is the story of two friends and the comforters God has placed in their lives to help them thrive amid their obstacles, not only through high school, but beyond.

Cry for Help

The year 2000 was a hard time for Rich and Kathy Gathro, a couple from Arlington, Va., who were struggling with an emotionally hurting child. Their son, Will, is unique. He has a phenomenal memory. He loves to be with people and cares about their needs. He also happens to have cerebral palsy, and being non-verbal, uses a speaking device to communicate.

In his middle-school years, Will started to act out, as he struggled with the loneliness of his disability. "He didn't have a lot of friends," Kathy remembered. "That's one of the theme{}s of special-needs kids. He has a great deal of what we call "EQ" or emotional intelligence. He would sob at night in his bed. We were totally depleted in energy, both physically and emotionally, in how to deal with him.

"One night Rich and I knelt by our bed and prayed, ‘Lord please show up in this kid's life. He's always been drawn to you and now he's turning in a different direction.' His heart had always been bent toward the Lord and we were seeing that dissipate. We felt so broken."

Calling

Within a month of that prayer, the Gathros heard a knock on their door. A good friend from church, Pam Harmon, asked to speak with them.

"I'm thinking about a change in my life," Harmon said, "and I want to tell you about it, but promise not to laugh … I'm considering going on Young Life staff."

"And of course I burst out laughing," Kathy remembered. "I said, ‘Young Life staff? You're too old for that!'"

"Well, have you ever heard of Capernaum?" Harmon asked. When Kathy replied "no," Harmon described the ministry to her.

Kathy replied, "That's fantastic. So many people would love this program and could be reached for Jesus."

Harmon wasn't finished. "I thought I might start in Virginia."

"Virginia?" Kathy asked. "Why? You live on the Maryland side of DC."

Harmon said, "Well, because Will's the only special-needs kid I really know well, and I'd like to start with him." Kathy burst into tears. "I began to realize she was there for Will and our family. This was God's answer to our prayer!"

Soon, Harmon started one of the first two Young Life Capernaum clubs on the east coast in Arlington. "I think there were 55 kids in Will's school and about 40 came to Young Life," Kathy said. "Pam blew the whistle and kids, families and others met Jesus. Will found fellowship, encouragement and leadership. His whole life changed. Pam came — at that moment — as a gift from God."

Meanwhile, about a half hour north in Rockville, Md., the Greenwold family was also discovering Capernaum. Harmon wanted to start the ministry there, too, so she invited Nancy Greenwold and her son David to come on committee and she also invited David to Arlington's club. David has a spectrum of special needs including mental retardation, autism and cerebral palsy, which affects his fine motor skills and speech.

Nancy and her husband, Doug, took David to every club meeting and he loved being around Harmon, new friends like Will, and all the fun. Soon Montgomery County Capernaum was born and David attended every club faithfully. "It became the highlight of his week," Nancy said. "Capernaum was the thing he most looked forward to and what he'd talk about all week long.

"Later we realized the reason it was so fun was because the leaders were the most compassionate, loving people we'd ever seen. They exuded love for these kids like no other group did. They made David and every other kid feel like the most special person in the world."

Camp

Like anyone their age, kids with special needs revel in their experience at Young Life camp, but Will took his week at camp to a completely new level.

"I'll never forget the first time Will went to Lake Champion," Rich said. "When they returned, Will couldn't get off the bus, because he was exhausted." "He didn't sleep that week because he didn't want to miss anything!" Kathy added. "Four high-school kids carried him off the bus. They looked at us and said, ‘Will had the best time of his life!'''

"He must have made us watch that camp DVD 40 times!" Rich laughed.

"That summer was magical," Kathy said. "It was the first time these kids ever had that much fun in their lives, without their parents orchestrating something."

David, too, was experiencing new adventures. With his leaders' encouragement, he started to see himself as a legitimate caregiver. He would push friends in wheelchairs and shepherd new people, particularly the younger kids, by opening doors and pointing them in the right direction.

Harmon, seeing David's growth, encouraged him to consider serving at camp. After successful shorter stints at Lake Champion and Crooked Creek, David spent an entire summer at Rockbridge helping assist at the snack bar, climbing wall and ropes course.

When asked what he enjoyed most about his time at camp, David happily responded, "Being a horse wrangler at Crooked Creek and working on the ropes course at Rockbridge."

"We think we're doing these kids a favor by letting them serve," Doug explained, "but people aren't aware what comes back to them." Nancy added, "The staff had incredible things to say about David because he's a happy guy, who's always reaching out to people. People in tears would tell us what an impact he had on them. It was such a joy to see David have his own ministry for 10-11 weeks without us. That's huge for the parents of a special-needs child. He didn't want to come home at the end of the summer!"

"Nancy and I were adult-guest hosts at Rockbridge during their Capernaum week, where 150 kids with special needs came in with 150 buddies and staff," Doug said. "I've never seen a better glimpse into the kingdom of God than Capernaum week at camp. We both said, ‘This is the closest thing to heaven we've ever experienced.'"

Cornerstone Ranch

As families of kids with special needs will tell you, there are certain life stages which can be especially difficult to navigate. "One is when they're just past the kindergarten stage," Kathy said. "After that, is middle school when more decisions are being made. Another is at 22 years when the school and state support ends and these kids can fall off the cliff."

Cornerstone Ranch was the dream of David and Cynthia Heaton, a couple who recognized the looming cliff facing individuals with special needs. While serving on Capernaum staff in Dallas, the Heatons were constantly aware their friends faced a tenuous future after high school. God gave them a vision to provide their friends with a place to live where they could experience abundant life. They left Capernaum staff in 2003 to start a group home, where their friends could live in community with typical families, who would help care for them. By 2006, they'd built Cornerstone Ranch on 42 acres of land in McKinney, Texas.

Doug Schulte is the current program director at Cornerstone, where he, wife Miranda, and their two daughters live with their friends. Like the Heatons, the Schultes have also transitioned from Capernaum staff to Cornerstone house parents.

"It's a privilege to know the ministry we're providing to the families," Schulte said. "We give them the security of knowing we'll take care of their child like they would."

On Harmon's recommendation, the Greenwolds visited Cornerstone and listened to the Heatons' plans. "We sat there with tears running down our cheeks because it was exactly the vision we had for what David's life should be," Nancy said.

David has been a resident there since the beginning. The Greenwolds told the Gathros about David's love for Cornerstone and it wasn't long before Will joined his buddy in Texas.

At Cornerstone, David and Will have flourished in their gifts and abilities. "Will is so smart and has the biggest servant's heart," Schulte said. "He always zeroes in on someone if they're lower functioning. Will really is the leader of the house.

"Meanwhile, David has a savant-like quality of unbelievable memory. When someone walks into the house, he asks about their family and remembers. They may not come back for 18 months, but when they do, he'll ask about their cousins, neighbors and birthdays. It's not just remembering facts, but genuine care behind the questions."

And what does the woman who came alongside Will and David 12 years ago think of the two men today?

"Will helped me start Young Life Capernaum and I'm so proud of who he has become," Harmon said. "I'm so proud he loves Jesus, can live on his own with his friends in Texas and for everything he's involved in and the way he's giving back to his community. And David has been one of my favorite friends, too, because he's always in a good mood. David has served on summer staff several times and I still meet people at camps who remember their time with him. They remember his happy attitude, encouraging ways, diligence, and how he expected the best of his fellow summer staff and brought out the best in them."

For Will and David, it seems that while they're no longer involved in Capernaum, they are still grateful recipients, and now gracious ministers, within the village of comfort.

Find out more about Young Life Capernaum.

To learn more about Cornerstone Ranch which is in the beginning stages of breaking ground for a second home and activity center on their campus, please visit their website, cornerstone-ranch.com.

My Speech for Young Life*
I go to school at the Stratford Program. I do my homework every night. I went to the mall. I played sports, basketball and soccer and track and field with Special Olympics. I was staying home with my family because I didn't have any friends that would invite me anywhere. I played Nintendo and watched TV all by myself. I like to go to Young Life club early so I can spend time with my friends. I went to camp last year in Glen Spey, N.Y., with my Young Life club and I am going on work crew this month. I am going to Yorktown High School in September. I went to training for work crew at Lake Champion. I am happy to speak to groups and fall retreats. Also I have a lot of friends at Yorktown. Kids from your community have things to do together. Young Life helps me to know Jesus better. I go to church. I pray twice a day. Last year in Egypt, I worked with the handicapped kids in an orphanage. It means a lot to me that Ryan tells me that God loves me. I got baptized on Dec. 22, 1996, because I love God. — Will Gathro, age 17

*In 2002, Will traveled to Colorado Springs to share his story with Young Life's Board of Trustees. After sharing his testimony through his speaking device, the Board gave Will a standing ovation. The highlight of his time with them? "Staying at the Broadmoor!"