Differently Abled provides new friendship opportunities for AU students

Abe Haler and his friend in the Differently Abled Program

When you walk into the community room at Edgewater Woods nursing home on a Monday night, you might be startled by the scene. In one corner of the room, someone twirls around to an offbeat version of “Glory to God.” In another corner, a cluster of people dance and sing along to “Oh Happy Day.” Others scattered throughout the room talk, clap their hands, or play a beat on shakers.

Genny Caldwell, student coordinator for the campus ministry Differently Abled, called this time of worship “a beautiful chaos.” According to Caldwell, Differently Abled is all about celebrating this chaos. The ministry joins Friendship Bible Study weekly to help facilitate this time of worship, prayer, and discussion of the Bible.

“Sometimes I don’t sing, and I’ll just listen,” she said. “I try to close my eyes because it’s all of this mush, and it’s crazy, but when you think about God, he’s just like, ‘Yes, they get it!’ It doesn’t have to be perfect. Each of them is connected with the Savior in a unique way. Even when we all come together and it sounds crazy, it also sounds beautiful because their whole hearts are in it. I see them worship and it makes me think, maybe God isn’t supposed to be in this box that I put him in,” Caldwell said.

Differently Abled (DA) began about five years ago when an AU student approached the former spiritual formation director about her interest in a ministry serving people with disabilities. At first, the ministry had only a few volunteers, but their dedication to the ministry made up for small numbers.

Now, DA has increased in number and remains a group of close-knit, devoted volunteers. Becca Palmer, director of spiritual formation, said that DA is unique in that it is a ministry of consistency—people who join DA often stay throughout their entire college career.

Courtney King and her friend in the Differently Abled Program.Caldwell is one such volunteer. When she came to AU as a freshman in 2015, she found herself overwhelmed and not believing she had a place on campus. When she joined Differently Abled, everything changed. “It gave me a place to belong,” she said. “I get so passionate about Differently Abled whenever I talk about it because it gave me this sense of belonging.” The people that she has met and developed relationships with are largely to thank for Caldwell finding her home at AU.

David, a patient at Edgewater Woods, has Down syndrome. He doesn’t speak much, but last year, Caldwell began a friendship with him through his favorite activity: coloring. “You’ll come to Differently Abled, and you’ll see David in the corner with his stack of seven or eight coloring books, and he’s just coloring away,” she said. “I was drawn to him because he’s got this beautiful smile. Through getting to sit with him and talking with him, we became a lot closer.”

One week, David held his arms out to Caldwell. At first, she thought that he was signaling that something was wrong or that he needed help. But when Caldwell moved closer to investigate, David surprised her by wrapping her into a hug. “That week was one of the hardest weeks for me, and it was a really big thing for me that all he wanted was to hug me,” she said. “Now every week I need a ‘David hug.’ Somehow he just knows exactly what I need. Now every week he hugs me and then just goes back to coloring. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Caldwell’s time with Differently Abled has taught her valuable life lessons for her future as a special education teacher. “They really do serve us,” she said, “Yes, we are going there and they do need to be served. But when we think of disabilities we think that they need our help. Something I’ve learned most with Differently Abled is that I need help too. If I have a rough week, they can empathize with that and you can talk to them about that. As much as I like to say that I really like serving them, they serve me so much every week in different ways.”

Nikki Edrington is a junior majoring in Christian ministries with a complementary major in journalism. She is writing on behalf of the Office of Communication and Marketing, through the Advanced Feature and Magazine Writing class.

Photos: Courtney King and Abe Haler pictured with their friends in the Differently Abled program. Photos used with permission.

Anderson University is a private, liberal arts institution in Anderson, Indiana with a mission to educate students for lives of faith and service in the church and society. Anderson University is recognized among top colleges by U.S. News and World Report, Colleges of Distinction, and The Princeton Review. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, the university now offers more than 50 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, music education, and theology.

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