This is post 4 of 4 in a series of posts about the staff members and volunteers of Champions Special Ministries, which “serves persons with disabilities, their families, and the church through creative, engaging programs and day camps, and helps churches establish relevant ministries to those with Special Needs.” You can also read the story of Champions’ founder, Alison Gromer, or of camp staffers, Caroline Coleman and Nich Bergstrom.
When Julie McLean went in for her first ultrasound, the results said that her baby probably wouldn’t make it. A cystic hygroma was growing on the baby’s spine, and testing for abnormal genetics would need to be done.
Several days later, the lab called with the results. The baby didn’t have trisomy 15 or 18, both of which are often fatal, but had tested positive for trisomy 21.
“What do you know about Down Syndrome?” they asked.
Her medical professionals told Julie about the difficulties her baby would face in life – how “it” would always need special schooling and would live in a group home someday if “it” was lucky. They said Julie had a decision to make.
Their impersonal wording and the implication her child would be less valuable because of special needs grated on Julie. After they told her the baby was a girl, Julie responded, “You can call her Faith… [and] I won’t be making that decision. Right now, I’m a mom, and I’m going to be the best mom I can be for her.”
For the next several months, Julie “cleaned house” physically, emotionally, and spiritually, wanting to give her daughter every possible advantage. Something new always seemed to be wrong – first, doctors were concerned about Faith’s blood flow. Then after she was born, she had a heart condition that required surgery. Doctors said she probably wouldn’t nurse or grow, that she might never be able to go off oxygen.
“But every time they say, ‘She won’t,’ she does,” Julie said proudly. “I’m not going to buy [their diagnoses] because if I do, that limits her, and it limits God. She’s just a miraculous, miraculous kid.”
Today, Faith is an energetic ten-year-old who loves learning, spelling, and doing math. “She just wants to be ‘one of the girls,’” Julie said.
Two years ago, after a painful divorce, Julie moved with Faith from their home in Colorado back to Kansas where she had spent a majority of her childhood. Within a month of moving back she connected with Alison Gromer, whose husband Julie had known from a campus ministry during her college years. Upon hearing about the work Alison was doing at the church Julie was attending for special needs individuals, Julie wanted to know how to get involved.
“We got together…to talk about it and what her vision and dreams were, and I got really excited about it. I knew it would be good for me to be a part of it.”
Since that time, Julie has served as a volunteer with the Night of Champions events, which her daughter participates in on a regular basis. Today, Julie is a Champions board member as well.
As both a mother and volunteer, Julie has a unique perspective on the impact Champions has on the community.
“The first thing that happens when [kids] arrive is that they get an ovation,” she explained. “Faith is growing up with this – she’s being celebrated. In fact, she’s got so many people in her life that are celebrating her that when she gets someone who looks at her funny [because of her special needs], she doesn’t know how to deal with it.”
Julie has noticed other parents’ being impacted by Champions’ ministry also. “I lead so close to a normal life with my daughter. I’m not in the same boat as many of the parents who come.”
She has seen one young man with special needs preach mini-sermons to the group and pray fervently over them. “It’s a chance for his dad to relax a little bit and for his son to walk in his calling to be a leader.”
Another mother frequently comes with her two sons who both have significant needs. “I’ve watched [the volunteer high school] kids with her sons…. They’re not being typical high school kids – they’re just with them…. For her it’s really great. She can have confidence that her boys are being loved.”
Julie sees the spiritual element of Champions as its most important aspect.
“If you pull God out of [therapy], you never get to the therapeutic need. [Other services] are missing Jesus’ heart, and that’s what this has. It’s creative, and it’s fun, and it’s exciting, and it’s loving, and it’s loving on a deeper level than so many other services,” she explained. “A huge number of special needs families don’t go to church because they don’t feel like they’re embraced there. That’s what this is – this is an embrace.”