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cover story

Faith in Action
Teach responsibility, build community
by jonathon seidl in Grand Rapids, Mich.

n a Wednesday last month

Helen and Don Fitz, a tiny, quiet
couple in their 70s, entered Calvary
Churchs adult daycare center, a room
with pastel-checkered carpet and bright
blue walls. Tucked underneath Helens
wrinkled arm was a thick, gray folder.
She sat down and spread the contents
on the table. Her voice cracked: She
only missed one time and that was
because we came on a different day and
she wasnt prepared.
The she who doesnt miss is
Elsbeth, a developmentally disabled
adult helped by the Faith in Action
(FIA) program in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Elsbeth, perhaps 70 herself, soon joined
the Fitzes at their table and delivered
that weeks drawing: flowers more like
stick figures than Monets lilies. It was
signed: To Helen, Love Elsbeth.
Elsbeth said she likes to draw flowers
and also to dance: She rose and performed a trot-skip hybrid with arms
rigidly locked, a bit like C-3PO. Helen
grinned: We get a different kind of joy
out of all of them. We dont worry as
much about little things.
Guardian Angels Homes started the
FIA program four years ago with a
grant from the Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation. Nationally, FIA programs
mobilize volunteers of all faiths to care
for those with chronic health conditions
and disabilities. Services range from
shopping assistance to friendly phone
calls. But Guardians Faith in Action
director Don Downer explained that, of
1,000 FIA programs in the country,
only two work with people with
developmental disabilities. His program
attempts to integrate people with developmental disabilities into the community by pairing them with volunteers.
Currently, 40 volunteers are paired
with about 15 disabled individuals.
The Fitzes began volunteering after
they saw a Guardian Angel Home going
up in their neighborhood. Out of
curiosity, they contacted the home and
Downer paired them each with a
mentee: Elsbeth (who is cognitively
disabled) with Helen, and Bobby (who


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has Down syndrome)

with Don.
For the last three
and a half years, Don
and Helen have spent
every Wednesday
morning with
Elsbeth and Bobby.
They usually pick
them up from
Calvary Churchs day
camp and get coffee
and tea at the Red
Hot Inn. From there,
they head to the
library or go to the
park. Its a good
match, a testament to
Downers companionship-focused
process. Downer,
6-foot-1 with a wellgroomed mustache,
requires volunteers
to fill out probing
questionnaires and go through extensive
training that teaches them how to identify and respond to different developmental disabilities, how to set guidelines
and boundaries, and most importantly,
how to slow down.
As Downer explained his pairing
system while walking outside two of
Guardians three-bedroom suburban
homes, a woman holding a Pizza Hut
cup approached from the sidewalk. It
was Heather, one of the homes residents, a short woman with an impaired
gait and choppy speech. Downer talked
with her about lunch and whatever else
she felt was important. As she waddled
off, he squinted after her: Sometimes
we have to slow down and learn to
enjoy a [soda] pop.
Guardians program accepts volunteers and clients of all religions and
denominations. It is ecumenical and,
while focused on faith, cautious.
Organizers largely ignore doctrinal
issues except to pair residents with
volunteers of similar faith. Our folks
are extremely vulnerable and easily
persuaded, explained Downer. Because

many lack the ability to make sensitive

decisions, FIA supports religion
without forcing it on them. Downers
concern is that overbearing religious
pressure could force the residents into
whimsical decisions: They dont need
to be converted from one lifestyle to
another. Were not going to artificially
create something.
While some are skeptical, many of
the communitys churches support
FIAs actions. Congregations from St.
Pauls Catholic Parish to the nondenominational Calvary Church help
those with special needs while also
involving lay people in a variety of
ways. For example, Calvarys day camp
is staffed by Guardian workers with
help from Sally Gallagher, a Calvary
member whose step-daughter has
Down syndrome. With the energy of a
caffeinated 3-year-old, Gallagher organizes dances that campers can p
in front of the group.
At one recent day camp, the
audience of campers waited in a
multi-purpose room on brown plastic
chairs: Some tapped their toes, others

thers struggled to stay in

line. But when the final
chord played from the
small CD player in the
window sill, none of that
mattered. The audience
applauded wildly.
Fred Earhardt, the FIA
committee chairman and
self-described nosey
neighbor, lives next door
to the mens home. He
often stops by to joke and
chat with the residents.
Hes also a member of
nearby St. Pauls Catholic
Parish. Hey Pat!
Earhardt yelled as he
entered the home, his
voice rattling the cupboards. Whadya think
about Michigan State?
Pat, an avid University of
Michigan fan with cerebral palsy, painstakingly
pinched his nose and
waved his other hand.
Phew! he said. They
both laughed.
Bobby (front row, second from right), Paul
(second row, third from right), Downer (last row,
Residents who are
far right), and Longchamps (far right front row)
helped also help others.
pose with other residents and volunteers
They greet visitors to
various churches, fill bags
for the local food pantry, sing for the
whispered, and others stared impaelderly, make crafts at the senior center,
tiently at the doorway. Soon campers
and serve at soup kitchens. They also
wearing white or black shirts with black
perform regular chores around the
pants and purple sash-like belts filed
homes, from setting the table to folding
into the room, waving flags to the song
socks. Said Guardian Board President
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Some perMatt Wieringa: Were empowering
formers never missed a move while

Jonathon Seidl

residents to do what they can do

within their ability level. When
residents arent challenged to contribute, they regress.
Guardian is even challenging residents to purchase their own homes. The
organization has broken ground on a
condominium project, intending to sell
the units to developmentally disabled
people in Grand Rapids. Condo residents would become part owners along
with one to three roommates. The point
is to teach responsibility, Guardian
director Cyndy Longchamps said, and
integrate able residents with normal
community members. As this program
and others continue, GAH leaders hope
that stereotypes and fears associated
with the developmentally disabled will
recede. Its harder to get people to volunteer with people with developmental
disabilities than it is with, say, the
elderly, Downer explained.
While different, these are people
who have great wealth within themselves, and they are a wealth to our
community, said 97-year-old philanthropist and mens home namesake
Ralph Hauenstein. A witty and direct
man, he served as chief of military
intelligence under Dwight Eisenhower
and has a developmentally disabled son.
FIA treats residents like individuals, he
said, not like burdens.
Residents have caught on. One
Hauenstein resident, Paul, has become
the defender and caretaker of Fitzs
mentee, Bobby, who is very shy.
Bobby, Paul said on a recent afternoon, why dont you sing Jesus Loves
Me? Bobby perked
up and Paul led him to
the piano, where
Bobby gently placed
his frail hand on top of
the yellowish keys and
played what sometimes resembled
chords. Past his broken and missing teeth
came whispers of
words and a melody.
When Bobby
finished, Paul, who
had mouthed every
word too, clapped and
cheered softly, Good
Job, Bobby! Good Job!
Bobby stared at the
keys and whispered,
Jesthus lufsme. c
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