By Shannon Baker
For years, Dr. Forrest Riddle, a family physician, has cared for children who have disabilities. So much so, he has led the elementary-aged kids at First Baptist Church in Laurel, Md., to collect funds to purchase and transport wheelchairs for them.
More than that, he teaches the church’s children to have compassion for those who have disabilities through a series of games and studies during their Royal Ambassador’s (RA’s) and Girls in Action (GA’s) program.
Every spring, Riddle combines the church’s classes together to view film clips from Joni Eareckson Tada’s autobiographical movie, which details how a diving accident in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay in 1967 left her, at age 17, a quadriplegic in a wheelchair.
At first, the children wonder out loud about how long the movie will be. “Will we be here until the morning?” one curious boy asks.
But as the children witness Joni’s accident in the familiar Sandy Point Beach area and her ambulance ride to the Shock Trauma Hospital in Baltimore, a decidedly different tone sets in.
The wiggling stops. The kids tense up in attention, eyes glued to the television screen.
Raphael Mahia, 7, wide-eyed and concerned, says, “This movie is non-fiction? That means it really came true?”
Affirming its truth, Riddle fast forwards the video to a scene from 1979, which shows how Joni, playing herself in the movie, establishes Joni and Friends, an organization for Christian ministry in the disabled community throughout the world.
In addition to other ministries, Joni and Friends has a Wheels for the World outreach, which collects used, but restorable, wheelchairs across the United States.
Inmates at correctional facilities in various states restore these used wheelchairs to like-new condition, and then they are shipped to countries like China, Cuba, Romania, Ghana, Thailand, and India.
In addition to receiving a custom-fit wheelchair, each recipient receives a Bible and a presentation of the Gospel message.
Over the past seven years, the children at First Baptist, Laurel, have collected, through special offerings at church and through their own support, over $18,000 for this wheelchair ministry.
They’ve also learned quite a bit about how difficult it is for a child in a wheelchair to participate in everyday life.
During their recreational time, Riddle organizes the students into two teams, whose participants take turns racing wheelchairs in a relay match.Thrilled at first, the children excitedly compete but soon they feel the weariness taking over.
“Imagine wheeling all day long,” exclaims Olivia Dickerson, 9. “It must make you so tired!”
Valentina Giuriola, also 9, agrees. “It was terrifying to imagine it was you going through it.”
Riddle initiated a second relay race, but this time, kids had to scoot across the floor without using their legs or a wheelchair.
“Isn’t it much more difficult to get around without a wheel-chair?” he asks, explaining how children all over the world live daily in this predicament.
So often, he adds, children with disabilities have to sit on the sidelines and just watch as others play.
Last fall, Riddle went to Joni and Friends’ International Disability Center in California to present his latest gift. Meeting Joni in person, he was overwhelmed by the radiance emanating from her face.
Explaining this to the children, Riddle shares a defining comment she shares in her movie: “If I hadn’t decided to go swimming in the Chesapeake Bay, I know I wouldn’t be seated here speaking about the glory of God,” she says.
To bring that point home, Riddle asks, “What do you think about when Joni was asked if she could go back—before she dove off—and could do it again? Who of you would do it again?”
Pausing, close to tears, the kids respond by tentatively raising their hands. A small voice offers, “If I knew it was God’s will, I would do it again.”
Agreeing, Karley Patrick, 11, thinks out loud, “Jesus and God do things for a good reason—actually always for a reason—to tell others about Him!”
Riddle smiles. This time, the radiance is shining from his face.
To learn more, contact Dr. Riddle at email@example.com.