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James Allen Walker for WORLD

Dreaming big

2010 Hope Awards | God has a purpose for the lives of the developmentally disabled, and Shepherds College aims to help them find it

Issue: "GOP idea man," May 22, 2010

UNION GROVE, Wis.-The students in Angie Houk's class begin their lesson with scriptural review. As Houk prepares her papers for the lesson, the students recite 1 Peter 3:15-16 boldly and confidently, their voices mingling into a sing-song chorus: "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience. . . ."

The voices continue and then repeat, stressing the same memorized keywords, until Houk stops to review the previous lesson. She quizzes them on how the giraffe's neck may disprove macroevolution (the blood vessels of the neck exhibit irreducible complexity), before moving on to today's lesson: Creation, as reported in Genesis. The students go through a worksheet, picking out what God created on each day.

This is Apologetics class at Shepherds College, an advanced program for developmentally disabled individuals run by Shepherds Ministries in Union Grove, Wis. The students at Shepherds are high-functioning, eager to learn, and excited at the opportunity to live on their own. At Shepherds, they receive both a Christian education and experience designed to help them transition to independence after graduation.

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Founded by a Sunday school class over 50 years ago, Shepherds Ministries operates on a grander scale than most ministries covered in this series: 120 employees and an $8 million annual operations budget. But a certain measure of financial stability creates issues of its own. What do you do when changes in society change your mission? Simply put, can an old dog learn new tricks?

Shepherds Ministries has traditionally focused on a residential home for severely disabled adults. At a chapel service for these residents, audience members share something in common besides their various disabilities: age. The contrast between the fresh-faced, high-functioning students of Shepherds College, and the gray-haired, often severely disabled clients of Shepherds Ministries is crystal clear. Many of these residents have lived here for over 30 years, a legacy of a different era. Shepherds was built and expanded throughout the '50s, '60s, and '70s, a time when institutionalization was the national model. Children were labeled "retarded" and hidden away.

In the '80s and '90s, the approach changed as parents more often kept their children at home. Special education programs in public schools helped make it possible for parents of developmentally disabled children to keep their families intact. As the population living at Shepherds grew older, new admissions slowed to a trickle. "Shepherds was guilty of trying to keep the old way intact," William Amstutz, President of Shepherds Ministries, said. "If we would have continued on as we were, we would have aged out."

Shepherds College is perhaps the ultimate realization of the new goal of helping the developmentally disabled reach independence rather than institutionalization. Although it is located on the same property and run by Shepherds Ministries, the program is otherwise completely separate from the programs for the more severely disabled residents. It helps to fill a new gap in the social safety net, the transition between graduation from a high-school special education program to work and independent living.

It's a three-year curriculum. Shepherds is currently building new dormitories on its property, and each year students will advance from dorm living, to group homes, to two-person apartments. The first year is focused on academics and the second year on vocational training with a major in either Culinary Arts or Horticulture. In the third year, students will be placed in internships for on-the-job training in their chosen career field. They are all developmentally disabled, which generally means they have life-long mental or physical disabilities that reduce their ability to speak, move, learn, or take care of themselves.

Three second-year students in the Culinary Arts program stand in front of the meal they have prepared: mashed potatoes, seasoned to perfection, with a half-dozen sauces to choose between. The students give the names of each sauce and describe the preparations that go into them. During lunch, while they enjoy their creations, they talk about the careers they envision for themselves. Gloria wants to be a cake decorator (Ace Of Cakes is her favorite show on television) and hopes to land an internship in a bakery next year. Nikki, who confesses to missing her home outside of Baltimore, wants to become a personal chef. And Scott, who loves a pun, wants to become a chef on a cruise ship, "so I can make ships ahoy cookies."

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