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Towson University




Mentors give special needs kids love

High school can be hard enough. Raging hormones, fickle relationships, cliques and mounds of homework can make a teenager feel a variety of emotions. Yet, 10.7% of Americans aged 15-24 have a disability, according to the 1997 U.S. Census Bureau. For many teens with disabilities, high school can be even tougher. But, Young Life's Capernaum Project says 'so what'.

The Capernaum Project is a Christian organization that links mentors with disabled youth. The mentors representing Young Life in the Baltimore region spend countless hours every week with kids whether it be taking them to the mall, a baseball game or the beach.

Suzanne Markham, area director of Baltimore's Capernaum Project, felt called to work with kids with disabilities when she was in high school.

Markham got started by asking a lot of questions. "I was first a [Young Life] volunteer leader at Loch Raven High School and I was finishing my senior year of college and studying education with a minor in special education. I knew that I wanted to do something with kids with disabilities but didn't really feel like I wanted to be in a typical classroom. I met someone who was from Arizona and his wife did a disabilities ministry, but not with Young Life. So I asked him a ton of questions about it," said Markham.

"The more I thought about it, I was like, 'Hmmm, I'm already a volunteer leader at Loch Raven High School, and I'm sure there's kids with disabilities there that I don't even know.' So I went and met with the principal and asked if I could hang out with kids with disabilities in the school or volunteer with special education programs. So that's kind of how it started."

By attending different functions and events held at special needs schools in the area, Markham began to build a reputation in the community. Markham continually researched the Baltimore area for already existing programs. She also talked to people who had dreams of starting up a program for kids with disabilities.

"It was lots about letting people in the community know what we were doing and finding out what was already here. We started volunteering at a sports league for kids with disabilities and doing wheelchair basketball, and tennis and football. We played there and coached there just to get to know kids, parents, and people in the community," said Markham.

Now three years strong, The Capernaum Project meets kids weekly for club meetings at two special needs schools, Ridge Ruxton School in Towson and John Archer School in Harford County. The Towson club meeting is actually held on the premises of Ridge Ruxton, while the club meeting in Harford County is held at a student's house. It's important for the spaces to be fully accessible for teens with all types of disabilities.

Young Life nicknamed their weekly meetings, "club." Capernaum's club is not too different from the clubs held at 16 other high schools in the Baltimore region.

"We have dinner at our clubs so that we have more time with the kids and parents have more of a break," Markham explained. "So the first 45 minutes is just fun, hangout time. Then we start typical club. It's looks just like a regular Young Life club. We sing, they dance, and then we do a skit, sing a couple more [songs], and then we'll give a club talk."

During the club talk, leaders share basic principles of the Christian faith and encourage kids to make decisions for themselves concerning the information they hear.

Twice a month, kids who are serious about their faith, meet to discuss the Bible and relevent topics at a separate meeting called campaigners.

Markham said, "This semester they were just going through some simple basic lessons. Talking about prayer and fellowship, sharing with their friend… They're working on memorizing scripture and praying together, and being more open about talking to each other. We're also helping them become leaders within our own group. So, we give them stuff to really be excited about."

Markham said that the smaller group tends to bring up more poignant discussion. The kids in the group tend to deal with typical teenage problems like family issues, and adolescent desires and frustrations.

"A lot of it's more thought process," said Markham. "They don't necessarily act out on it… with like drinking, drugs, the sex scene… [but,] they have all the same thoughts as other kids do."

"Their biggest questions are usually, 'Why [am I] disabled?' 'Why [am I] in a wheelchair?' 'Does God care about [me]?' They say, 'If God cared about [me], then why would he allow [me] to be disabled'. They deal a lot with isolation. Even if they're integrated into a typical school, sometimes they don't really have a lot of friends, no one really knows who they are, and no one really cares about who they are."

Markham said that a lot of times people fear that people with disabilities are really different, but most of the time, they are not. She also suggested talking to kids with disabilities instead of at them or to an aid who might be with them.

"I think the biggest thing is don't assume what they can or can't do, or how they can or can't communicate. But, be willing to ask and be patient. Learn with them. And if they have a hard time speaking, they'd rather you ask them six times to figure out what they're saying than to pretend like you know what they're saying or shrug them off."

Markham has big plans for the group over the next few years. She would like to see Capernaum started in local hospitals. Her vision is to set up their clubs right in the hospital for kids who are diagnosed with cancer, leukemia, or having surgery at the time.

She also anticipates the opening of a Lighthouse. A Lighthouse home would be wheelchair accessible on the first floor and is used for spending time with kids.

"We could do cooking classes, have sleepovers, watch movies, and have club there. [It would be used] to hang out and would offer a lot of respite care, if we just wanted to have a couple of kids sleepover, or do a girls' night or a guys' night there," said Markham. "But, we would always have a house that was accessible that we could use and that we would never have to worry about doing things at other places."

An extension of that idea is to open a group home for kids that are able to move out on their own and have some independence. Markham pictures the kids as leaders who would help run club, and the staff would help them get jobs in something they're passionate about. She wants them to be able to do things that they are gifted in or excited about versus finding menial jobs.

During summer 2003, Markham is taking on a new project. Usually Young Life takes its kids on a week-long camp trip during the summer. In the past, Markham has taken a sizable group of teens from Capernaum that can handle a week of sleepover camp. She has designed a day camp for those who couldn’t participate in the regular camp trip. The day camp will also be open to those who would like to attend both or are too old legally to attend Young Life camp (the age range is 14-21).

The agenda for the five-day camp will include a ropes course, initiative games and team building, rock climbing, fishing, hiking, hot air balloon rides, ski boating, and one night where they'll have a bonfire and sleep outside in tents.

Markham's work always requires lots of volunteer leaders. "I've never been discouraged about my job," said Markham. "And it's great having parents who are in love with what we offer their kidsand they make it so much easier because they're so excited about what we're doing and they're willing to do anything to help, encourage us, love us. All of our volunteer leadersmake my job the easiest. I could never, ever do it apart from them."

To find out more about Young Life's Capernaum Project in Baltimore contact Suzanne Markham at (410) 825-1507 or capernaumyl@verizon.net.