Life 103

Monday, June 05, 2006

Family Friends

The following is some of what I shared at a local retirement community last night...

There is a general movement across this country to move matters of faith outside of the traditional church walls. By that I mean, there is a growing sense that one’s spirituality should connect with the community where one lives in tangible, practical ways that are beneficial to the community, and one exciting thing I’ve noticed about this movement is how it crosses denominational and generational lines.

I have heard this desire expressed in a wide variety of ways. For example, someone I know of says he is endeavoring to live his “faith as a way of life.” At our church, we call this living out love, putting feet to our faith or listening to God with our whole life. I have talked to people from age 25 to 85 who are expressing the same desire. One young woman recently told me that her Sherwood church believes in spending more time in service to others outside of the church walls than it does sitting in service by themselves inside the church building.

I know that missional living, or making your walk match your talk, is not new by any means and maybe it’s just the crowd I hang around with, but it seems to me that there has been a resurgence of interest in incorporating one’s faith into the whole of life; into the spaces where we live, work, play and serve with others. James wrote in his letter that faith without action is dead…If we believe that, and I do, then something beautiful is happening in Newberg every day. Faith is alive and well, showing itself in tangible and practical ways all around the community and you and I are recipients of it just because we live here. But, more importantly, some of our most frail and vulnerable neighbors are recipients of it too.

The Newberg Faith in Action is a network of organizations, agencies and faith communities that coordinates the efforts of volunteers, people seeking to make a difference here and now, in this community. These volunteers address the unmet needs of older adults and children with special needs. Specifically, our mission is to enable volunteers to connect with people who face challenges related to health and aging. That means, we coordinate volunteers who are motivated by their faith to help older adults with non-medical things that would otherwise go undone because they lack family, friends or funds; things like yard work, housework and transportation to doctor’s appointments. Volunteers also encourage improved life and health by leading Strong for Life exercise classes at the senior center and in apartment complexes in Dundee and at Springbrook. These classes help older adults maintain strength and balance, reducing the risk of falls for a longer healthier life.

And, Faith in Action coordinates the Family Friends program that Deana and I work with, which recruits, screens and trains volunteers (age 55 and over) who wish to be a friend and support person to a child and family with special needs. Volunteers visit nearly every week for an hour or two at their convenience to share in activities with a child and family of interest to them all.

Two years ago in May, I started this new venture with Family Friends that was, for me, a chance to do something different and worthwhile. In these 2 years, I have come to admire and love the most amazing people who give their time to be a healing presence as they visit a child with a disability. They may be doing it just for fun but they are, as Bas Vanderzalm said at the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast this year, the answer to someone else’s prayer. They are loving, giving people, whose faith is alive and very active right here in town. They come from all walks of life with a wide variety of experiences. They each have a different gift to offer and a different amount of time available each week. But they all have a heart for making a difference in the life of a vulnerable child and family. And that is a beautiful thing.

The children and families enrolled in Family Friends are just as phenomenal. Parents talk about the dark valley they went through when they discovered their child’s disability but in the same breath say they wouldn’t have it any other way. They say they’ve never appreciated life so much. They also talk about the mean and hurtful words they have endured from others in the grocery store, in restaurants, at church, and in their own homes from people who don’t understand them or their child. These parents speak with love of their children who deny them sleep (sometimes year after year), who they don’t completely understand either, and whose potential they aren’t sure of. They wonder out loud if they will be their child’s caregiver forever. They don’t complain any more or less than the rest of us but when you talk to them, you begin to see that their burden really is heavy at times and that they do get very, very tired.

And their children…their children are beautiful. They are kids with Autism. Kids with Downs. One has a congenital heart condition and a neurological processing disorder, another a tracheotomy. Yet, they are kids who have hearts of gold and smiles a mile wide; who love to sit on the couch and be read to, hugged, and talked to as if they were nearly full-grown. They like to cook, jump on a trampoline, swing, be tickled and laugh. They are ordinary kids with extraordinary physical, emotional and developmental challenges and sometimes their Family Friend is their only friend.

My task is to find these folks and bring them together in the name of Family Friends, a program funded by a 2.5 year grant from the National Council on the Aging, with matching funds provided by Providence Newberg Medical Center, a small group of faith communities (including mine), and many other exceptional individuals who see the need. We recruit and train volunteers, search out and enroll children, say many a prayer for a good match then introduce them to each other and watch little miracles take place.


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