Photography by: Jay Fram
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“For the sake of your Jesus, won’t you help my son?”
Those words from a Jewish woman’s lips provided the spark that began it all.
In 1992, Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church (St. Louis) started a Christian elementary school, Kirk Day School. In 1997, a woman from a Jewish background approached Kirk’s then-senior pastor, Dr. W. Wilson Benton Jr., about admitting her son with autism to the school. Although Kirk offered education to those with mild learning disabilities, it wasn’t equipped to serve those with more significant challenges, and the woman and her son were turned away. But the woman’s words lingered with Dr. Benton, and he decided to pull together a team to pray about the possibility of starting a school for those with more severe developmental delays.
Seven years later, through the financial support of Kirk and several other churches, Promise Christian Academy was started in Kirk’s basement with two students, two teachers, and one classroom. The school aimed at meeting the needs of children with severe, often multiple, disabilities through speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and academics.
As children with more significant needs continued to seek enrollment at the Day School, Promise grew. By fall 2005, Promise had four students. By 2007, there were 12, and by December 2008, the school — and a tractor trailer of special-needs equipment — relocated to St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf in Chesterfield, Mo. Today, Promise has nine staff members and 21 full-time students ages 6 to 17.
No Longer an Outcast
The first time Amy Cummings brought her son Xander to Promise, she saw his face light up as he bounced on the trampoline.
MNA Special Needs Ministries
For those who want to learn more about special-needs ministry, the PCA’s Special Needs Ministries can help. The vision of MNA Special Needs Ministries is “to see the Body of Christ made whole through evangelizing and authentically integrating people with differing abilities into the life and mission of the PCA.” According to the ministry’s website: “Often PCA churches are interested in serving people with special needs … but genuinely do not know how to start. By providing access to resources, training, consultative services to congregations, and facilitating networking between PCA churches—MNA Special Needs Ministries plays a vital role.” Go to pcamna.org/specialneeds to learn more.
“[The jumping provided] the bilateral movement that aligned his brain and nervous system. That’s what his body had been craving, and no one knew how to give it to him.”
The year before, Amy and her husband, D.B., had sent Xander to public preschool, only to find out that their son — who had sensory processing disorder — would likely be assigned to a special-needs classroom and, if he couldn’t learn to sit still, ultimately be moved to an alternative school — a setting that the Cummings perceived as a no man’s land for those deemed virtually uneducable.
The Cummings knew there had to be something else for their son. Xander was bright, and although there were many factors stacked against him, the couple didn’t think their son deserved to be warehoused. When a friend told them about Promise, it sounded like it might be a good fit, and they decided to investigate.
“Xander walked into Promise and loved it,” Cummings said. All of a sudden, he didn’t feel like an outcast.
“It was a whole school of ‘someones’ God made like him,” explained Cummings after she and D.B. decided to enroll Xander at Promise. “He’s not aware that he’s at a school of special-needs kids because they’re not treated as kids who should be shut up and forgotten about.”
Rather, each child is treated as an individual to be celebrated and cultivated: a whole person with both gifts to be cherished and challenges to be addressed. About 40 percent of the students who currently attend Promise have been diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder, 30 percent with some form of sensory processing disorder, and another 30 percent with a range of conditions from Down syndrome to cerebral palsy to epilepsy.
“Our dream for each one of our students is that they can achieve their fullest potential that God has given them,” explains Meredith Heintz, head of school. “For each, it is different. There are those who will go on to college and be successful. Others will get vocational training and maybe work at a movie theater or Target … we’re unlocking that potential.”
Some students who come to Promise will likely spend their entire educational career there, Heintz explains. Others — perhaps Xander — will likely be at the school only for a time, until they are equipped to be successful in a more “typical” setting.
“Because he’s getting what he needs at school, we’re able to take him to other places and play with other kids who function normally,” Cummings explained. “He feels very loved everywhere he goes. That love follows him, and he knows he’s loved by God.”
As Promise helps, educates, and loves the children who come through its doors, it also ends up doing the same for the families attached to its students.
“These families are hurting,” Heintz explains. “One of the biggest reasons they’re hurting is that they’re alienated in society … some don’t have a lot of friends. Some can’t take their children out to dinner. Most families just can’t leave their children with anybody. They can’t go to church, because who will watch their children?”
But at Promise, Heintz says, these families find that they are not alone anymore — that they are part of a community. “What we hear from every family is ‘You finally understand what we’re going through.’”
“It’s been a life-changing thing for our little girl,” said Becky Kicklighter, mother of a 9-year-old student with sensory processing issues. “She has friends for the first time … and they’re really friends. Before, she had friends, but she didn’t know how to play with them. Promise puts us in touch with other families who have similar struggles.”
In 2009, Promise was almost forced to shut its doors. Squeezed financially and having just a few students who each required expensive equipment for therapy, the school was nearing a breaking point. Someone on the board put a motion on the table to close Promise.
And everyone just sat there.
“If I have ever felt the presence of God, it was that moment,” Heintz said. “No one would second the motion.” So board members took a week to pray about it, and when they reconvened, still no one would second the motion. They took it as a sign that God wanted them to continue the school on faith.
And that’s when enrollment picked up. As well, outside individuals began contributing scholarship funding to help already-stretched families pay the $16,000 tuition. More and more churches from the Missouri Presbytery, others from around the PCA, and other Reformed denominations, as well as other local Christian schools, began contributing support. The school was able not only to stay open, but also allowed to purchase more equipment and expand to accommodate new students.
“As we look at how Promise has grown, we have just stayed in God’s hand,” Heintz explains. “We prayed for manna and He provides … and we just wait for Him to lead.”
A Haven for the Hurting
As Heintz talks about the school, her passion is infectious. Every day, she watches new victories unfold before her eyes: the girl who isn’t afraid to walk up stairs anymore. The little boy who can now sit for 30 minutes at the lunch table. The girl who has made real friends for the first time in her life.
As one of the few faith-based schools in the country that specializes in education for those with pervasive learning challenges, Promise has the freedom to meet a child’s spiritual needs as well as educational and developmental needs. And it creates a beautiful opportunity to share Christ’s love in a way that may too easily slip through the cracks in many churches.
“I believe it is an area within the church as a whole that we have not done a good job of having as a ministry,” Heintz admits. Perhaps because the church has become accustomed to delegating the care of those with handicaps to other institutions. But during the past decade, Promise has shown that the church can take on the challenge of caring for those with special needs — and do so with effectiveness and compassion.
“What a beautiful picture of Christians when we help each other out,” Heintz says. “It could be a meal or picking up a child with special needs. We need to be good Samaritans to those who are hurting.”
And for the sake of their Jesus, Promise has done just that.
Zoe S. Erler is a freelance writer and editor based in Indianapolis, Ind. She has written for Prison Fellowship Ministries, BreakPoint Radio, The Indianapolis Star, The Washington Times, and World Magazine.