I could not have been assigned a better role. Placed out in the parking lot, my job was simple: help families find the doorway to the dance.
From where I stood, I could see several miracle-moments in the making. Front desk agents prepare the warm welcome of our soon-to-arrive VIP guests. A photographer focuses his lens in front of the step-n-repeat backdrop. The cheer brigade with signs and posters line the red carpet. And high school kids dressed to the nines await their dates.
Joy Unleashed was about to begin.
One night each year, we invite the kids in our community to dress up, walk the red carpet and pose for pictures. Volunteers serve meals and chaperone the activities. And while the decorations are beautiful and the food is delicious, Joy Unleashed really only promises one simple truth: nobody will ever be the same.
You’ve likely seen recap videos of dances like these. Kids that are impacted by special needs are paired with high school counterparts and they take the night by storm. And even though they’ve just met, something unique happens. What began only minutes earlier as, “Nice to meet you” has quickly graduated to, “I will step in front of a high-speed train to protect you.” It is love at first sight.
In an instant, typical kids are under a waterfall. The goodness and sweetness and kindness and gentleness of kids with disabilities pours down upon them and finds a way into certain recesses of their hearts that they didn’t know existed. It's grace upon impact. The byproducts are as predictable as they are unmistakable. From experience, it’s an ice bucket response to the soul for which you’re not fully prepared. And even if you know what to expect, the jolt is the same. You sit up inside. You open your eyes. It’s like you feel – really feel – emotions for the first time. You start to question where this version of yourself has been your entire life. A kinder, sweeter, more compassionate and patient YOU emerges. My quick temper is no match. I’ve said it before, but the fruits of the Spirit that God wants us to demonstrate are found in those with special needs.
CCV Music has a song called Bloom. One of the lines says, "Where You walk the flowers bloom. You turn deserts into gardens when You move. This barren land can give good fruit. Come tread the ground inside my heart and make it move. Let it bloom." On a rainy night, with music in the distance and flash bulbs and red carpets, that's what happens when you love on - and are loved by - the disability community. We bloom. And that's what's about to happen to every kid whose been paired up to hit the dance floor.
So, where was I? Ah, yes. The parking lot. Far removed from the experiences I know that are about to happen inside, I’m watching parents and caregivers arrive. I had a front row seat to the first appearance; the dawning and commencement of this honored procession. I tell you, there’s not a tougher person on earth than a parent of a child with disabilities.
I saw a mother bring her son to the venue and I watched her as her boy walked away with event counselors. The look on her exhausted face and the tears in her eyes said it all. Who knows? Maybe she never imagined her son would attend a prom.
I watched a young man with Down Syndrome sprint from his parents because he knew the way, and his parents happily let him lead.
And then I saw Kieran.
Kieran will never walk or talk. I watched as his dad carried him from the back seat of their car to the curb. It was raining and dark, so Kieran’s brother was holding the umbrella while his mother helped adjust his shoes. His dad then held him up and hugged him and used that opportunity to tuck-in the back of Kieran’s shirt. While he sports the best smile you’ve ever seen, Kieran’s body responds like a kid’s doll; his arms go one way and his legs go another. With his head bobbing and his entire body at the mercy of others, he's completely dependent upon his Dad for every single thing; things like adjusting his handsome tie in the pouring rain. After all, his boy had a date. And it’s what a Dad does for a son.
As they approached, sentimental me swallowed and smiled, and I gave them as warm of a welcome as I could muster. And then Kieren’s father said something that I will never forget. Something so simple and sweet and innocent and obvious. Standing in front of me was just a man with his family. He said, “Where do we go from here? My son has special needs.”
I’m typing this recap in a flood of tears as his voice echoes in my mind. My heart collapsed inside my chest. “Where do we go from here? My son has special needs.” Dang it. I was a mess. In my mind, I thought, I know he does sir. I know. I love your son. And I love you too. You’ve come to the right the place. You’re going in the right direction. Allow me to escort you. Soon Kieran will be with the most amazing people - Hannah, Paolina, Gina and the rest of their crew - and he’ll be smiling and laughing with a girl. He’ll eat ice cream. And yes, he’ll dance.
And so, another Joy Unleashed is in the books. Best night of the year. And each year I somehow think I had the best job of all.
Oh Lord, my arms work because of You. My legs respond to my thoughts and my mind is uncluttered. Every ounce of my body is a gift, and I realize there are those that don't have certain abilities. Prevent me from believing that I somehow earned any of this, but let my life be as reckless and abandoned as those precious kids on the dance floor as they danced the night away.