Sam Abant was having a great time with some of his best friends at the Chick-fil-A restaurant.
The 23-year-old young man with special needs had his arm around a pretty college girl while she took “selfies” of them with some handsome college guys.
Abant and six other young people with special needs and a half-dozen college-age students involved in the Baton Rouge Young Life Capernaum ministry were spending an hour at the restaurant doing what young people like to do — hanging out. Meanwhile, some of the parents of the special-needs students also enjoyed the friendly atmosphere and, for them, had some rare adult fellowship.
“So many people view kids and adults with special needs as on the outskirts of everything. People feel awkward around them, uncomfortable around them,” said Evie Duhon, 20, an LSU sophomore who was hanging out with Sam. “But when you give them a chance and form a relationship with them you find the soul underneath. You realize how much you can learn from them and how they are created so special. It really makes you humble because they know how to love with no restrictions and no expectations.”
When asked if he was having a good time, Sam just smiled broadly and said, “Yeah!”
Duhon, who grew up with a special-needs sister and has attended Young Life since middle school in Lafayette, served as a “buddy” at a Capernaum summer camp, said it changed her life.
“At first I was more attracted in wanting to help, but as I grew in my faith I realized these kids really just need someone to love them where they are at and show them how loved they are,” Duhon said. “The thing that is so beautiful to me is they are just ‘raw’ — what you see is what you get. You’ve got to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. And then it’s not awkward anymore. They teach you how to love them.”
Young Life is a nondenominational Christian ministry committed to making a positive difference in the lives of young people in middle school, high school and college through the friendship and influence of caring adults, according to the group’s web site, younglife.org.
Founded in 1941, it meets in thousands of groups in all 50 states and more than 90 countries worldwide.
Young Life has a Baton Rouge chapter of about 50 college students who each week minister to about 60 teens in seven area high school clubs, said Scott McClain, Metro director. The Capernaum group is a relatively new ministry and is the only one in Louisiana.
The ministry is named after the Capernaum area of the Holy Land where the Bible says Jesus performed many miracles, McClain explained, especially the story in Mark chapter two, where four men made a hole in the roof of a house and lowered their paralyzed friend down to Jesus to be healed.
This Capernaum group, which includes students with a spectrum of intellectual and physical special needs, meets once a month for a “hang-out” at different places, including the recent Chick-fil-A gathering.
The Capernaum students also regularly meet with high school students in bimonthly gatherings at Broadmoor High School.
“It is an invisible population, but we feel they are the heart of what God wants us to do,” McClain said. “They want to be included.”
“The college kids sign up to help them. They really have a heart for the kids,” McClain said. “I just feel like it is the heart of God. We need to be reaching all kinds of kids.”
One of those college students is Lindsey Hovis, 20, who grew up in Shreveport, attended LSU two years and now lives in New Orleans.
Every week, she drives to Baton Rouge because, she said with a huge smile, “Capernaum is my life. I love them so much! When I was a junior in high school I went to a Capernaum camp. I just fell in love and I knew I had a calling for it.”
“My motto is, ‘We’re all handicapped, but some are more handicapped than others,’” Hovis said. “Just because they have a disability they should not be on any other level than any of us. I literally can’t stop smiling when I’m around them.”
Amanda Abant, Sam’s mother, said she appreciated the love her son was receiving from the college students.
“It’s nice just to have people who are willing to interact with him, have an interest in taking him places. It gives him friends, it helps his self-esteem,” Amanda Abant said. “And it gives me a breather, and it makes me feel good he is happy.”
Tom and Lisa Sisson have two daughters — Kathryn, 24, and Grace, 14 — in the group. Kathryn is outgoing and even boisterous at times while Grace is quiet and hangs tight with her mother. “They don’t get to do things like ‘normal’ kids do, but this is,” Tom Sisson said.
“It’s neat. They’re my friends,” Kathryn declared. Grace gave a big, sweet smile.
Mary Whitfield was there with her daughter Paige, 14, and Paige’s best friend Sinclair Cotter, 14, who are both cheerleaders at Greater Baton Rouge Hope Academy. The girls attended Capernaum camp for the first time last summer and came home spiritually changed, she said.
“The leaders of this group and the leaders at camp — they bond with them and it builds an openness to learn about God,” Mary Whitfield said. “Paige came home with a little Bible from camp, and I’ve seen her heart opened up to spiritual things.”
“In a way these kids are socially lost. They just don’t fit in and they have to have special people reach out to them — and these leaders take them right where they are,” Whitfield said. “I’m thrilled. It’s a magical thing to see they feel they are part of a group. They are with their people, a comfort level I don’t think they’ve ever felt. I’m so grateful.”
Jenny Pearce, the local Capernaum director, works at a local engineering firm.
Her message to parents of special needs teens is: “We are here and we want to hang out with their kids. We want to be a community for them and just love on them, be their friends.”
Angel Davila, 19, an LSU sophomore in the Air Force ROTC program, has been involved in Young Life since he was a sophomore in high school.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, what race you are, everyone deserves to know that God loves them. That’s what I believe,” Davila said. “I just hang out with him (Sam). Sometimes I can’t understand what he is saying, but he has a smile on his face so I know that whatever I’m doing is working.”
“What would Jesus do? He would have hung out with Sam. He would have hung out with all these kids,” Davila said. “Jesus didn’t hang out with people who were, like, rich and stuff. He goes and hangs out with the sinners and the broken people.”