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Faith in Action

Faith-based finalists | Teach responsibility, build community

Issue: "The audacity of real change," Aug. 23, 2008

On a Wednesday last month Helen and Don Fitz, a tiny, quiet couple in their 70s, entered Calvary Church's adult daycare center, a room with pastel-checkered carpet and bright blue walls. Tucked underneath Helen's wrinkled arm was a thick, gray folder. She sat down and spread the contents on the table. Her voice cracked: "She only missed one time and that was because we came on a different day and she wasn't prepared."

The "she" who doesn't miss is Elsbeth, a developmentally disabled adult helped by the Faith in Action (FIA) program in Grand Rapids, Mich. Elsbeth, perhaps 70 herself, soon joined the Fitzes at their table and delivered that week's drawing: flowers more like stick figures than Monet's lilies. It was signed: "To Helen, Love Elsbeth." Elsbeth said she likes to draw flowers and also to dance: She rose and performed a trot-skip hybrid with arms rigidly locked, a bit like C-3PO. Helen grinned: "We get a different kind of joy out of all of them. We don't worry as much about little things."

Guardian Angels Homes started the FIA program four years ago with a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Nationally, FIA programs mobilize volunteers of all faiths to care for those with chronic health conditions and disabilities. Services range from shopping assistance to friendly phone calls. But Guardian's Faith in Action director Don Downer explained that, of 1,000 FIA programs in the country, only two work with people with developmental disabilities. His program attempts to integrate people with developmental disabilities into the community by pairing them with volunteers. Currently, 40 volunteers are paired with about 15 disabled individuals.

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The Fitzes began volunteering after they saw a Guardian Angel Home going up in their neighborhood. Out of curiosity, they contacted the home and Downer paired them each with a mentee: Elsbeth (who is cognitively disabled) with Helen, and Bobby (who has Down syndrome) with Don.

For the last three and a half years, Don and Helen have spent every Wednesday morning with Elsbeth and Bobby. They usually pick them up from Calvary Church's day camp and get coffee and tea at the Red Hot Inn. From there, they head to the library or go to the park. It's a good match, a testament to Downer's companionship-focused process. Downer, 6-foot-1 with a well-groomed mustache, requires volunteers to fill out probing questionnaires and go through extensive training that teaches them how to identify and respond to different developmental disabilities, how to set guidelines and boundaries, and most importantly, how to slow down.

As Downer explained his pairing system while walking outside two of Guardian's three-bedroom suburban homes, a woman holding a Pizza Hut cup approached from the sidewalk. It was Heather, one of the home's residents, a short woman with an impaired gait and choppy speech. Downer talked with her about lunch and whatever else she felt was important. As she waddled off, he squinted after her: "Sometimes we have to slow down and learn to enjoy a [soda] pop."

Guardian's program accepts volunteers and clients of all religions and denominations. It is ecumenical and, while focused on faith, cautious. Organizers largely ignore doctrinal issues except to pair residents with volunteers of similar faith. "Our folks are extremely vulnerable and easily persuaded," explained Downer. Because many lack the ability to make sensitive decisions, FIA supports religion without forcing it on them. Downer's concern is that overbearing religious pressure could force the residents into whimsical decisions: They "don't need to be converted from one lifestyle to another. We're not going to artificially create something."

While some are skeptical, many of the community's churches support FIA's actions. Congregations from St. Paul's Catholic Parish to the nondenominational Calvary Church help those with special needs while also involving lay people in a variety of ways. For example, Calvary's day camp is staffed by Guardian workers with help from Sally Gallagher, a Calvary member whose step-daughter has Down syndrome. With the energy of a caffeinated 3-year-old, Gallagher organizes dances that campers can perform in front of the group.

At one recent day camp, the audience of campers waited in a multi-purpose room on brown plastic chairs: Some tapped their toes, others whispered, and others stared impatiently at the doorway. Soon campers wearing white or black shirts with black pants and purple sash-like belts filed into the room, waving flags to the song "Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!" Some performers never missed a move while others struggled to stay in line. But when the final chord played from the small CD player in the window sill, none of that mattered. The audience applauded wildly.

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