Students 'blossom' at Handicapable ministry

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Students 'blossom' at Handicapable ministry

Aug. 9, 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0343} 

An e-Review Feature
By Nancy E. Johnson**

LARGO — They greet each other with hellos, hugs and high-fives. It's a ritual of fellowship that repeats itself every Wednesday night at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Largo.

"It's a good, clean, wholesome environment for them to meet with their peers," said Horton Townes, the director of the Handicapable Ministry.

The students are adults with mental and physical disabilities. The ministry started in October of 1997 under the leadership of Dr. Bill Fritz, a Methodist minister from Canada. He wanted to unite those he called "God's special people."

LARGO — Students participating in the Handicapable ministry at St. Paul United Methodist Church here enjoy at trip to a local game. Photo by Jim Puyda, Photo #05-223.

More than 100 students arrive at the church at 6:15 p.m. for a rousing chorus of sing-a-longs. One of the students, Andrea Spensiero, blushes when her friends tell her she has the voice of an opera singer. "My favorite song is 'I have decided to follow Jesus'," she said.

After the singing is Bible study where the students act out skits that relate to stories in the Bible. While some are only able to make sounds, they all manage to communicate. They're surrounded by teachers and fellow students who embrace them freely.

"It's an environment of love without conditions," said Rene Townes, a Handicapable Ministry teacher. "A lot of the students have never had love and care ever. They know they can come to us and hug on us, and they know we accept them as they are."

Spensiero looks forward to Handicapable events when she leaves her job as a cashier at Auntie Anne's Pretzels. "It's easier to make friends here than anywhere else. ... I feel comfortable here," she said.

The reach of the Handicapable Ministry goes beyond Wednesday night Bible study. The group goes to baseball games, tours the nation's capital, as well as local airports, and two-steps at Western hoedowns. Horton Townes chronicles the students' adventures on DVD and shows it to them on Wednesday nights.

"When they see themselves on the screen, they hoot and holler ... just laughing at each other," Townes said. "It's like they're looking at a first-run movie that they're the movie stars in."

Becky Moon is one of the ministry's teachers. She spreads buttercream frosting on chocolate brownies before many Bible studies. It seems that many of the students like celebrating their birthdays every week. That just means more goodies to enjoy.

"The love you get back from volunteering your time warms your heart," Moon said. "You can't imagine how this has changed my life. They've been teaching me more than I've been teaching them. ... I've even learned sign language."

But it's the students who have made dramatic transformations. Some come from group homes. Others live with family members or on their own. Their disabilities vary in severity. Over the years, Horton Townes has seen many of them grow developmentally, emotionally and spiritually.

"You can see where they've blossomed," Townes said. "They were so shy, just standoffish, wouldn't have anything to do with anybody. Now it's unbelievable how they've blossomed."


This article relates to Outreach.

*Parham managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Nancy E. Johnson is a Florida-based, freelance television and print journalist.

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