By Shannon Baker
MILTON, Del.— Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCM/D) Associate Executive Director Tom Stolle and his wife Shelley understand all too well what it is like to care for a child with special needs. The youngest of their thee boys, Jimmy, now 14, has autism.
According to Autism Speaks (www.autismspeaks.org), the nation’s largest autism science and advocacy organization, one in every 68 children is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined.
That translates to an estimated three million individuals in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide that are affected by the condition.
“I remember when Jimmy was born. It was an awesome experience, just like the birth of our other two boys. But we noticed shortly after he was born that Jimmy was a bit different,” shared Tom.
“Instead of rolling Matchbox cars, he would line them up next to each other. Or he might line up empty soda bottles and look at them. He would flap his hands and move his hands around and spin his feet around, but we didn’t know what all that meant.”
Tom shared that he and Shelley didn’t know anything about autism; so they just thought that Jimmy was different and cute. But other people, including Shelley’s sister, Kim, noticed things they didn’t see.
Kim had previously interacted with a child with autism and when visiting the Stolles noticed that Jimmy displayed similar behavior.
“It was hard to hear but I got online, and I read one paragraph about autism, and I knew. It finally all made sense,” Shelley said.
Tom remembers that he was initially very angry because when Kim said she thought it was autism, what he heard was something like, “You just called my son stupid.”
He added, “For awhile, I felt guilty for not seeing it, just thinking he was a late developer or he had some peculiar habits.”
The Stolles took Jimmy to Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore to be tested.
That was a tough day watching Jimmy slamming his head against the file cabinet, Tom said. It was very obvious that Jimmy was different.
“I realized then that our lives would be very different. We didn’t have the child we thought we had,” Tom shared. “It’s almost like a death. You have to bury the child you thought you had and raise the child that you now have.”
At the time, the Stolles were living in Bowie, Md., where they were delighted to find a really good program through the Prince George’s County public school system for children with special needs.
Later, the Stolles moved to Delaware where Jimmy could attend the Sussex Consortium in Lewes. In the same city, they found Seaside Church, which has proven to be a very positive experience for the family.
“The people at Seaside minister to Jimmy. They love Jimmy. Jimmy is very comfortable there. We are glad to be a part of that family. Pastor Charlie Arnold and the other folks there really do love Jimmy,“ Tom shared.
Tom believes that the church will continue expanding its ministry to families with special needs, which for Tom is part of his “big dream.”
“For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life,” Tom said, reciting John 3:16.
“Jesus says ‘whosoever,’” he stressed. “It’s not only for the smartest or the brightest or for those in society that fit in or are considered normal. It’s everybody.”
He continued, “The people on the fringes of the population are just as important to Him as those who are in the mainstream. Jesus doesn’t say, ‘You’re not good enough to make the cut.’ Jesus says, ‘I love you, and you’re all included.’”
The second half of Luke 14:21 also jumped off the page into Tom’s heart: “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”
He dreams for there to be churches where special needs isn’t just a ministry of the church. It is the church where special needs families and their kids can come together in a single worship service and worship God and feel like they are included.
In other words, they have a seat at the banquet table like Jesus talks about in Luke 14.
“Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Go get the poor, crippled, blind and the lame, and we’ll put them in a special section of the banquet.’ ‘Bring them in,’ He says, ‘so my Father’s house will be full,’” Tom stressed.
“At the end of the day, we are all special needs. God sent Jesus to die for us because we had a special need. We were all separated from God, and God sent Jesus to bridge that gap.”
That includes those with special needs.
“Jimmy just blesses people. He’s just an amazing kid. There are many, many Jimmys across the country and around the world that bless people just because of who they are. I believe my church is blessed because of Jimmy, and I think more churches will be blessed if they embraced more of these children and their families.”
Tom admits that a special needs ministry will not be easy. He is quick to point out that children with special needs do not “cause problems” but the dynamic “magnifies challenges.”
“The mom intensely loves that child, nurtures that child, pours her life into that child, and in spite of what many of us think, moms don’t have this vat of energy that never runs dry. The father feels, ‘Hey, there’s nothing left for me.’ The father gets to escape, go to work and have more going on in his life. He starts to withdraw. The marriage grows apart.”
He stressed, “What a ministry opportunity for our churches to step into and bless these people and show them the love of Jesus! Special needs ministry is more than caring for the child. It’s also the care for the family because many of these marriages—if they are still intact—are a disaster.”
Moreover, he says there is a large segment of the population who wants to go to church but many feel that they can’t, afraid of how their children may respond or behave or that the church won’t love or embrace their child.
But Tom and Shelley know that these children have so much to offer and that God will use them to teach special lessons to individuals and families.
“God is using Jimmy more than anyone to teach me about love. Jimmy’s love is unconditional,” he said. Shelley agreed, “Jimmy is very loving and there is nothing fake about him. You always know that he loves you.”
Tom has learned also a lot about social discrimination through the way others view Jimmy by his behavior or their expectations of him.
“It’s very eye-opening to come from white suburbia and feel such discrimination,” he said. It helps you understand that we are far from where we need to be as a society.
“The reality is, we’re all sinners,” he said. “God has really used Jimmy to soften my heart in those areas.”
“This isn’t the life I would have chosen for Jimmy,” shared Shelley, “but we work every day to try and help him be all that he can be.”
To learn more about ministry to families with special needs, contact Tom Stolle at [email protected].
This article was updated on April 30, 2020