Beautiful Things

15 Winter Beautiful Things.jpg

Meredith Cuddihy had a dream. In 2011, the Glenville, New York, senior returned from Saranac Village a new believer in Christ. That fall she continued bringing her younger brother, Chris, to Young Life club, a practice she had begun the previous year.

These weekly trips to club had their challenges. Chris is profoundly autistic, and while he likes to try new things, he is also uncomfortable in crowded, noisy places — an apt description of most Young Life events.

This didn’t deter Meredith, however. “It was important to her because she wanted Chris to experience what other kids do and to know about Jesus,” explained Glenn Cook, the Young Life area developer in Eastern New York and Western New England. It took about a year, but eventually Chris did adapt to the energy and excitement which go hand in hand with club. 

And now the dream — Meredith wanted Chris to go to Young Life camp. In Meredith’s eyes, this was the greatest place on earth, and she wanted to share that experience with her brother. She spent months trying to convince her father to let Chris go.

For Paul Cuddihy, plenty of roadblocks seemed to loom in front of his daughter’s idea: the cost of sending a third child to camp (Meredith and youngest daughter, Maggie, were already going to camps), a buddy would be needed to accompany Chris, and a week at camp would be too long for his son.

They cleared the first hurdle when scholarship money came in for the cost of Chris and his buddy. The second hurdle — the buddy turned out to be Meredith’s number-one candidate; Paul would go with his son. The third hurdle? Easily solved — Paul and Chris would go to camp for three days and two nights. Meredith’s wish was coming true.


FLOUR POWER

The time had arrived, and once at Lake Champion, father and son crammed as much fun into their abbreviated week as they possibly could. Paul accompanied Chris on the boats, down the zip line and across the ropes course. They were side by side at club during the night and field games in
the morning.

One of the games involved flour bombs, a.k.a. napkins with just enough flour inside to make a very messy weapon. However, Chris invented a new game with the bombs, Cook said. “He didn’t understand flour bombs are meant to be thrown — he just kept breaking them in his hand. Then he got an idea: he broke one over my head, spilling the white flour all over my short, thinning hair. He took his hands and made sure it was rubbed in well. Then, somehow, he got ahold of a water balloon. He broke that over my head, too, and kneaded the mixture into a thick dough. Chris laughed like it was the most fun he had ever had.”

Chris’s laughter was contagious. “His joy made me laugh uncontrollably,” Cook said, “and in that moment on the field, with dough in my hair, laughing with Chris, I experienced a sense of joy and happiness that I knew was a gift from God. I understood God’s grace a little better than I had before and, inexplicably, I felt His pleasure. I have to admit I don’t know how a nonverbal, autistic teenager comes to understand who Jesus is, but I hope it has something to do with flour bombs and water balloons.”

Meredith smiled as she took it all in. “I can’t explain how beautiful that moment was,” she said. “It’s very hard to bond with Chris, even for me, his sister. That moment is something I’ll always remember.”

As Paul and Chris’s time at camp drew to a close, Meredith was thrilled that her wish had been granted. Unbeknownst to her, though, God was only getting started on His work with the Cuddihy family.


“I WANT THIS”

Paul Cuddihy grew up in a churchgoing home, but wandered away from this upbringing when he hit his 20s. For the next two decades, he showed little interest in things of faith. Paul liked what his kids were experiencing at Young Life and he arrived at Lake Champion content in his role as his son’s “buddy.” But Cook also wanted to ensure Paul had the opportunity to experience the “behind the scenes” part of camp, by bringing him to the leaders’ meetings each day. 

“Glenn did something I’m not sure even he realizes,” Paul said. “He let me come on the trip even though I really didn’t belong, and he invited me to leader meetings to sing and pray with them. I was blown away by how cynical I was. These leaders were not trying to sign people up for a church or a political party or some donor list. They just poured their hearts into bringing these kids to Jesus with no ulterior motives. I almost couldn’t wrap my brain around that.”

Paul absorbed everything he could in his short time at camp. The times in club were especially meaningful to him. “The first night the speaker talked about God. The second night was on Zacchaeus, which was a beautifully striking story for me at the time because I was at the top of the club with Chris. So I felt kind of like Zacchaeus, just standing up in a tree, being drawn, asking, ‘What is this?’

“I’m a very musical person,” he added, “and in club they sang ‘Beautiful Things.’ I had never heard the song before and it spoke powerfully to me — as if I could hear God personally calling to me, saying I could just leave my pain, I could be reborn. 

“Although I was only there for two full days, by Sunday night I thought, ‘I want this.’”

On the car ride home, Paul sensed something was different. “It was apparent my entire life had just changed. I didn’t even know how to pray yet, I didn’t even say a prayer like ‘I’m giving my life to you, Lord,’ but my soul was a thousand pounds lighter. The things that used to worry me, depress me or tangle me up, they were just all gone. It was amazing.”


ALL IN

It didn’t take long for others to notice the changes in Paul, but in all honesty, he certainly helped the cause! Paul recounted a now “legendary tale” among friends and family. “The very next day I was back at work and walking down an empty hallway. I was just so happy, having been freed from my old life, I had my hands up in the air and I was singing ‘Beautiful Things’ to myself. One of the guys I work with suddenly came around the corner. It was kind of awkward and he asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ and I blurted out, ‘I just got back from Jesus Camp and I’m having a hard time keeping my hands down!’”

Needless to say, his bewildered coworker was speechless. Understandably, the Cuddihy family was in awe of the changes they, too, were seeing. 

“My plan,” Meredith said, “was that Chris would enjoy a week at camp like other teenage boys and grow from his time there. What I couldn’t believe when I returned home
was how much my dad
had changed!

“After camp he was overfilled with joy. And my mom saw this, and said, ‘What in the heck did
they put in the water at Lake Champion?!’”

A few days after the camp, Glenn Cook was in need of a male leader for the upcoming WyldLife trip, and invited Paul to go. Paul jumped at the opportunity, took the kids to camp and returned even more on fire in his newfound faith. It was at this point, he said, that his wife, Nancy, declared, “OK, I’m all in.”

Fast forward a year, one Paul describes as “the most amazing year of our lives,” and the Cuddihys have a new outlook. The family serves together at church, Chris continues to come to club and flourish in the love of his parents and sisters, and Maggie, the youngest, serves alongside Paul as a WyldLife leader.

Meanwhile, Meredith attends Le Moyne College in Syracuse, while volunteering with Young Life and inviting more kids into a relationship with Jesus. Apparently, she still has more dreams to share.

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