As summer vacations begin to wind down, many of us are refocusing on local businesses, seeking to learn new techniques to attract customers and create new revenue. Learning comes in many forms – seminars, forums, and continuing education. Sometimes though, the most lasting lessons come from the briefest encounters.
For more than a decade, I have served as the advisor to a group of special needs adults called the Kiwanis Aktion Club. These young adults meet each month at the Lake Norman Chamber to socialize, conduct community projects, and participate in programs to enrich their lives.
Recently, a friend asked if I had a personal connection to this group. Perhaps a family member with special needs or a friend with a disability? As I started to reply, I had to suppress the tears. Yes, there was a story. There’s always a story.
In 1983, I joined a local community service group called the Jaycees and jumped head first into nearly every local project. Then one day, the Chapter President asked for volunteers to participate in Camp Hope Sunday. The statewide charity was a summer camp for children with disabilities. Each year the Jaycees would dedicate one Sunday to drive to this special camp and spend an afternoon with the young campers. The volunteers would take a picnic lunch, usually stopping at KFC just outside of the camp, and spend time with the campers. After lunch, the kids would sing a few songs for their hosts.
The first few times I was asked to join in, I always found an excuse why I couldn’t attend, but in 1986 I was president of our Jaycee Chapter and felt that I had to go. Once there, I was assigned a little boy. Thirty one years later I still remember his name … Jason. Jason was just like any other ten year old child except he was considered special. Jason had Down Syndrome.
Shortly after we arrived, we sat down for our picnic. The room was loud with laughter and chatter and Jason hardly took a breath between bites as he filled me in everything that came to his mind. When he reached over and started picking up food off of my plate, I was slightly taken aback. But Jason just laughed as if he had told the biggest joke of all.
Several minutes later Jason joined a group of kids to sing a few songs. Picture twelve children, all singing the same song, but each and every one in a different harmony and pitch. I caught Jason looking directly at me, eyes locked on mine, and he was smiling from ear to ear. After the last song, he ran back to our table, anxiously asking could I hear him? “Absolutely,” I replied. I’m quite sure he was the loudest child on stage! As our group gathered to depart, I’ll never forget that moment when this young boy who I met just hours before, wrapped his little arms tightly around my waist, and said “I love you Mr. Bill.”
We drove three hours back to Rock Hill and although others in the car were carrying on conversations, my thoughts were still on Jason and the other campers. That’s the day, the very moment, I realized Jason didn’t have a special need – I did. But not anymore. I truly believe God gave me that moment with Jason for a reason.
When my friend asked me recently did I have a special needs child of my own? I said yes. I have a couple of dozen of them actually. We meet every month at the Chamber. We call ourselves the Aktion Club.
Some Aktion Club members are in their 20’s, some in their 30’s and they may not be kids – but in a very special way, they’re my kids. When they have every reason in the world to rail against their own particular challenges – they laugh, love, learn, and serve.
Jason touched me in way that I have never forgotten. This ten year old child with Downs taught me I didn’t need to be afraid. He had enough love for us both as he wrapped his arms tightly around me as my body literally shook. Three decades later I remember that simple hug. It was the afternoon I found God’s Grace in the heart of a child.
The above article was written for The Lake Norman Citizen Newspaper – July 26, 2017.