Every two years thousands of teens gather for fun, fellowship, worship, and mutual encouragement at the WELS International Youth Rally. But can a teen with special needs attend and participate in this event?
Our daughter Sonja was born with cerebral palsy and has profound challenges with mobility and communication. Her younger sister Christina had attended the 2016 Youth Rally in Fort Collins, Colo., and it was a given that Christina, along with the rest of the teen group from our church in Oak Creek, Wis., would attend the 2018 event in Bowling Green, Ohio. But what about Sonja?
Having turned 18 in March, this would be Sonja’s last opportunity to attend a rally. But special accommodations would be required: she would have to be accompanied by one of her parents at all times to serve as caregiver; she would need more privacy and space than the dorm accommodations would allow; and her dietary and mobility needs would have to be addressed.
Thanks to Kris Snyder and her team that organized the 2018 event, all these issues were solved. While Christina bunked in the dorms with the rest of the group, Sonja stayed with us in a hotel directly across the street from the campus. The arena which served as the primary venue for the rally was wheelchair accessible, so Sonja could participate in every worship service and see all the keynote speakers. The Bowling Green State University cafeteria had gluten-free options which served Sonja well. When asked about favorite parts of the rally, gluten-free pizza was one of them.
Sonja particularly enjoyed the songs by the band Koiné and the address by Steve and Sarah Schroeder. Steve was a US Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot injured in a January 2017 crash. Our daughter could relate to the intense therapy regimen that Steve has undergone since his accident.
The theme of the rally was “Never Alone,” which seemed particularly fitting for Sonja. A person who deals with a disability can often feel left out and alone. Teenagers, too, are vulnerable to feelings of unimportance and worthlessness. The gospel love of our Savior was spelled out so beautifully in the lyrics of the rally song, written and performed by Koiné:
Sitting all by myself in the darkness
All I see are the dark clouds rising
Seems there’s no one around who hears me
Who understands, understands
But then I hear you say,
My name is Jesus,
I’ll help to see you through.
My name is Jesus,
And I have promised you
You will never, no never be alone,
I’ll be with you ‘til I carry you home
In the darkness, in the sunlight,
No matter where you go.
The entire rally was a wonderful reminder that we share a universal need for God’s love, and God has filled that need by sending Jesus to be our Savior.
So can a teen with special needs attend and participate in a WELS International Youth Rally? Because of Sonja’s experience we are so happy to answer that question with a resounding, “Yes!”
Margo Schmidt is a member at St. John’s, Oak Creek, Wis., where her husband Steve is also the pastor.
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