Special needs ministry welcomes friendships

By Maggie Bridgforth
UNC Co-Editor
the Durham VOICE

The melody of music and laughter fill the gymnasium as people with various disabilities enter and are greeted by volunteers or “buddies” with high-fives. The noise in the room swells as people gather around several long tables, eagerly greeting friends, eating pizza and sharing news from the day.

On Tuesday nights, a joyful chaos erupts at the Reality Center during a program called “Tuesday Night Live” (TNL), which serves people with cognitive disabilities from across the Triangle.  It’s a program that further sets Reality Ministries apart from other community centers in the area.

EC and Tina Taylor are regular attendees at the Reality Center. On this particular Tuesday night, they were asked to participate in a skit reenacting a story from the Bible as Susan McSwain narrated. (Staff photo by Maggie Bridgforth)

Earnest Chester Taylor, 60, better known as “EC,” sits with his wife Tina Taylor excitedly showing off a picture of their recently born four-month-old cousin.

“I have a baby cousin and I’m happy to be here with my friends,” said EC Taylor.

Friendship. That is a word echoed throughout the room by all: the volunteers, the staff and the participants.

When the Reality Center, located on the corner of Gregson Street and Lamond Avenue, opened its doors, Susan and Jeff McSwain were unsure what their ministry would look like, said Susan McSwain, director of the special needs ministry. They did know, however, that they were starting with the typically overlooked, specifically people with developmental disabilities.

“The goal of that part of Reality Ministries is friendship,” Susan McSwain said. “All the vents and activities that we do are grounded in the need for all of us, and particularly people with disabilities, for friendship. Our hope is to provide space for people with and without disabilities to develop real relationships.”

Within Reality, two different groups exist to serve people with disabilities: one for teens and young adults ages 14 to 25 and one for adults over 25. Each group meets twice a month, once at the Reality Center for TNL and again at Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church for an event called Pass the Peas.

Participants gather Tuesday nights for dinner, group games, singing and a message from the Bible. During Pass the Peas, participants and volunteers share a meal together, partake in a community service project and meet in discussion groups. Other events throughout the year include summer camps, Girls’ and Guys’ Nights, the Kings and Queens Dance, the TNL Talent Show, field trips and Bible studies.

At a Pass the Peas dinner in February, Arwen Uhlenberg and volunteer Talia Rice, a junior at Riverside High School, talk as they wait to make Valentine's for the community service project that evening. The Valentine's were delivered to a nursing home in the Durham area by Reality staff and volunteers. (Staff photo by Maggie Bridgforth)

Taylor, a regular at Reality events, also participates in the local Special Olympics, which is thriving in the Durham area. Many of their students compete, McSwain said.

“Wild guess? Maybe 40,” Taylor said when asked how many sports he has played in the Special Olympics. “I’ve got so many medals.”

Taylor lives in Durham and has worked as a groundskeeper at Durham Academy for 30 years. Several years ago, he met his soon-to-be wife, Tina, at a dance. They dated for five years before tying the knot two years ago.

“I got on my knees to see if she would accept, and now we’re married,” he said. “So ain’t that good?”

Taylor and his wife said they regularly attend TNL and other Reality events to meet new friends, learn about the Bible, play games and, of course, eat.

Many people don’t realize that the largest minority group in America is people with developmental disabilities, said McSwain.

“People don’t see them,” said McSwain. “So our goal is to see them and to provide a place, a welcome place, for all of us to be able to live out our true identities as beloved children of God, worthy, with much to offer.”

Approximately 75 participants from across the Triangle and 80 volunteers ranging from teenagers to adults arrive every Tuesday night. An awestruck McSwain explained that the program is never in want of volunteers because when someone comes once, he or she always returns, often with friends.

Andrea Hoff, who has volunteered with the adult ministry for two years loves walking in the door and seeing friendships form between adults who have disabilities and adults who don’t.

“It’s just joy embodied in here,” Hoff said. “I leave here having gained more than my presence could possibly have contributed to anyone. In giving, I receive.”

Instead of keeping the various programs and participants at Reality separate, the staff strives to shatter these barriers. They recently started a Tuesday afternoon chorus in which students from the after-school program and the teen TNL program join to create a melody of sounds. Also, many of the volunteers at TNL are often participants in the after-school program.

“We’re blurring the lines,” said McSwain. “If we’re not erasing the margins, at least we are blurring the lines.”

As Reality grows, McSwain hopes to begin providing work opportunities for people with disabilities since employment opportunities are limited for them. While she and the Reality Center strive toward that goal, the staff and volunteers at Reality will continue to pursue friendships.

“I think [friendship] is a lofty and wonderful goal, but it is also very simple,” McSwain said.

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