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Christmas spirit shines light on special needs

Joey Matthews | 12/29/2014, 12:26 a.m.
On this afternoon in mid-December, tissues passed freely among the rows of families, friends and community members attending Second Baptist ...
Cory Todd, 25, presents his mother, Cynthia Todd, with a “God Chose Me” award during Second Baptist Church’s recent Christmas celebration spotlighting the talents and contributions of people with special needs and their advocates. Photo by James Haskins

Ronnie Carter rose from his wheelchair and walked resolutely to the front of the sanctuary. Turning to the audience, he stirringly sang the hymn, “Jesus Loves Me.”

The 60-year-old South Richmond man has an intellectual disability. He is unable to read. But that didn’t stop him from reciting Psalm 23 from the Bible.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul …” Mr. Carter declared.

When he finished, there was not a dry eye in the sanctuary.

On this afternoon in mid-December, tissues passed freely among the rows of families, friends and community members attending Second Baptist Church’s fourth annual special needs Christmas service.

The theme: “Celebrating Life, Love and Special People.”

Like Carter, participants with special needs merrily sang, danced, mimed and performed karate exhibitions in a celebration that was as emotionally moving as it was joyous.

Performers at the Randolph neighborhood church included children as young as 6 and adults up to middle age with physical and mental challenges such as autism, cerebral palsy, Down’s Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities.

“It’s not about disability, it’s about ability,” event co-founder Monica Lucas, a Second Baptist member and special needs professional, told audience members.

She and Pam Mines, a Chesterfield County mother of two children with disabilities, organized the event to celebrate the talents of people with special needs.

Ms. Mines is the founder and president of the JP Jumpers Foundation, whose mission is to “positively impact families affected by autism, special needs and unique circumstances,” she said.

Jayla Brown, 12, enthusiastically welcomed guests at the service’s start with flash cards that read in part: “I am 90 percent non verbal. I smile, laugh and jump to express my needs and wants. Most importantly, thanks for JP Jumpers.”

Her mother, Jamilya, a single parent who works and attends school full time, was among six people to receive a “God Chose Me” award for her dedication to help people with special needs.

“God gives strength to the weary,” she tearfully told the audience. “Many days, you’re mentally tired, but you pray to him to give you strength, and he does.”

Ms. Lucas then called Cory Todd, a 25-year-old with a learning disability, to the podium to deliver reflections.

Sounding every bit the skilled preacher, he taught from Matthew 1:18-23, telling the biblical story of Jesus’ birth.

“How many of you have felt alone or are feeling alone now?” he asked. “Don’t feel alone. I also feel by myself sometimes.

“We are not alone,” he said, reminding listeners that Emmanuel means, “God with us.”

He said he still thanks God, even after his brother was murdered Sept. 15. “Though I’m going through (tough times), God is still with me,” Mr. Todd said, drawing “Amens” from some audience members.

Mr. Todd’s mother, Cynthia, another award winner, said doctors did not expect her son to survive when he was born weighing 2 pounds. She said he underwent 12 surgeries soon after birth and his disability went undiagnosed by school psychiatrists and teachers.