Dan and Michele Davy share how their daughter found a place to belong through Special Friends
Many of you may remember Jessie from her role as Zazu in last year’s Penguin Project Production of The Lion King. From the very first day when she joined Penguin for Beauty and the Beast, she was immediately welcomed and included. Grace, a mentor in Penguin, was the first to welcome her and introduce Jessie to her artist and mentor friends, sitting with her at breaks until she felt comfortable. Caroline, another mentor, poured into Jessie by taking time to talk to, listen, and encourage Jessie, even outside of Penguin. Alli, Jessie’s mentor, helped Jessie to have the courage to be in front of a Willow-sized audience, helping her to dance and move and even add to her character. In Lion King, Alli literally helped her soar across the stage as Zazu—they were Zazu together.
When asked why Jessie went into Willow’s Special Friends, Jessie said: “To find a place where I belong.” To understand why she was looking for a place to belong you need to hear a little bit of her journey.
Jessie had been a part of Promiseland since she was quite young and loved it. She had just turned 6 years old when we discovered she had a tumor in her brain. Doctors were able to operate and fully remove it. However, she was a unique case in that she did not speak after the surgery and was not able to get up and perform daily activities. She had what they call Posterior Fossa Syndrome, which affects speech and the ability to move. After 1.5 years in bed during the treatment for her cancer, Jessie then spent several months at Marianjoy for rehab where Hayley, Elizabeth, Bethany, and Jessie’s other therapists helped her regain abilities to move and speak. She has been on this journey for 10 years and there are so many stories of how God made us smile, laugh, and carry on in the midst of it all.
As Jessie’s healing progressed, we continued to see God work. Some seasons were particularly special: in one community theater group our family was a part of for many years, God blessed Jessie with a really special group of girls who befriended her and included her in their talking and laughing, dancing, and just hanging out at rehearsals and during the production. But other seasons were very difficult. It is easy for both children and adults to be so focused on their own conversations and activities that they forget to look around for the individuals who are struggling to keep up. Being left behind, ignored, or simple things like being at the back of a group where no one walks alongside you, are hurtful and can make individuals with special needs feel lonely.
Nonetheless, as Jessie reflected on coming to Special Friends “to find a place where I belong,” she was quick to add, “God gave me friends when I needed them.” Whether that was through a ballet class where a student named Olivia assisted Jessie to stand and do barre work, or through the Special Friends Penguin Project group, God has graciously provided new opportunities when one activity ended.
Last year when the Penguin Project show was over, many of the artists wouldn’t see each other for the rest of the year until the next show. Our section leader, Michelle Pilafas, recognized and shared this need with Special Friends Pastor, Paul Von Tobel. Pastor Paul began Special Friends Teens activities on Wednesday nights to fill that need. These Wednesday nights usually begin with meeting for dinner at church and worshipping at Midweek, followed by varying activities depending on the week: a social activity, a Bible teaching, or a serving opportunity at the church.
Together the Special Friends Teens have enjoyed activities from game nights to packing seeds for Celebration of Hope. The Special Friends community is characteristically accepting of others, and Pastor Paul builds on that quality, modeling how to reach out and start conversations and relationships. As a result, Jessie developed deeper friendships and community with her Special Friends.
One of Pastor Paul’s first teaching lessons Jessie heard was on belonging. He went around the room placing his hands on each teens’ shoulders, looking them in the eyes, and telling them, “You belong at Willow.” When teaching them about their gifts, Paul again went to each teen, placing his hands on their shoulders, praying over them, thanking God for them, and listing each of their gifts. Ken, another teacher in Special Friends, made cards for each teen with their name on it that reminded them that “God provides for Jessica.”
Recently, Pastor Paul started Bible studies where the teen does part of it at home and then they meet the following week to discuss it. Jessie has loved how the discussions are even more insightful. Pastor Paul sees each teen as an individual, asks questions of each one, and allows each person time to share their thoughts. He gets to know each friend and speaks uniquely to each person. Paul provides a place where they can spend time with friends, feel seen and known, grow spiritually, learn at their pace, find their spiritual gifts, and serve at Willow as a community.
Jessie said: “Pastor Hybels, Mr. Carter, and Mrs. Larson see special-needs kids and are giving them opportunities in church.” Jessie has grown so much in her gifts and abilities and has so much more confidence where she is now reaching out to others. She has thrived being a part of Willow’s Penguin Project and Special Needs Teens groups. We are so grateful to be at Willow and participate in what God is doing in the Special Needs community, where, in Jessie’s words, “it doesn’t matter what your disability is; they just accept you for who you are.”
Through Willow’s Special Friends’ ministry and through love expressed to us by family and friends, our family has glimpsed a breathtaking vision for a church body that fully embraces each member. We would love to invite you, Willow family, to join us on this adventure of building friendships with special-needs families. Sometimes an act as simple as slowing your pace to walk alongside a child in a wheelchair or sharing a giggle over a simple silly moment can have a powerful impact on a special-needs family. The very act of taking the time to notice them and listen to their story shows that you care and are standing with them. Sometimes our family even sensed the presence of God through a friend who would stand and weep with us in the hospital room, unable to fix the situation but providing a bulwark of strength by his willingness to simply be present.
In our own family, we haven’t always known how to love people with special needs well. Our family had to learn what it looks like to be present and love in the moment—and we learned by simply spending time with special-needs families.
Even before we entered the special-needs world with Jessie, our friend Heidi showed us a magnificent example of this kind of love. She invited families with special-needs kids, Matt and Taylor, to her annual 4th of July party. Matt, who performs in Penguin Project shows with Jessie, and Taylor, are both nonverbal and in wheelchairs. They communicate with smiles and their eyes. As we learned from interacting with Heidi, Matt, and their families. Matt has a fantastic sense of humor—you tell him stories or a joke and he is right there with you, his contagious laugh lighting up the room. It was such a blessing for us to get to know Matt and his family. We thought we knew what love looked like before, but real love was what we saw in these families and people like Heidi, Pastor Paul, Penguin Directors/Choreographers/Vocal Directors/Helpers, theater and dance friends, and the mentors in Special Friends who choose to know and love individuals with special needs.
So, as you begin to reach out and develop friendships with special-needs families, learn by watching and doing. If you’re not sure how, simply spend time with special-needs individuals and their families—your special needs-friends will accept you just as you are.
Willow Creek's Special Friends ministry will perform a musical production of Mary Poppins Jr. this weekend, July 21/22 as part of weekend services.