By Sue Tornai
The faint scent of rubbing alcohol greeted Dan Brown when he entered Stanford Children’s Hospital. At age 17, Dan had never been around a person with a disability and was nervous about meeting Tom. Tom had Cerebral Palsy and was recovering from back surgery. Dan’s fear subsided as soon as he said, “Hello,” and Tom smiled. He found a tennis ball, and the two played catch. Every week Dan returned to spend time with Tom.
Dan realized that even though Tom had disabilities, he had the same needs other kids did—the need to be included, the need for love and friendship, the need to have fun. He thought how great it would be for Tom to have similar opportunities to those Dan had in Young Life, the organization that introduced him to Tom. Young Life provided Dan with a place to meet friends, play sports, and learn about God. After Tom was released from the hospital, Dan took time to help Tom connect with Young Life Capernaum, a place where young people with special needs can make friends, have fun, and explore a relationship with Jesus Christ. This program inspired Dan to create his own organization in the greater Sacramento area a number of years later.
Attending worship in the multipurpose room at Sunrise Community Church in Fair Oaks, California, one Sunday Dan glanced away from the minister and up to the basketball hoops. He had a vision of young people with disabilities playing basketball, and he scribbled down a few notes. Later Dan began to pray about how to create an organization like Young Life Capernaum for special needs teens. He desired to organize a local club that would meet a couple times each month for kids to meet friends and build lasting relationships.
He discussed his vision with one of the ministers of the church, and the two discussed a possible plan to make the vision a reality. They agreed on the name Walk on Water, or WOW for short. Dan took the first official step and presented his idea to the elders. With the elders’ approval, Dan took his vision to the church high school and college groups. The young people surprised him with their desire to serve. More volunteers committed to help Dan when he shared his vision with the congregation.
The overwhelming church response made Dan realize God was in this. He attended community events specifically designed for kids with disabilities and shared his dream of the WOW Club with leaders there.
The Birth of a Ministry
Community enthusiasm for a WOW Club moved Dan to create an Olympics-style track event for special needs teens that served as the kick-off activity for WOW. Dan made an announcement to the local schools and also advertised on K-LOVE and The Fish Christian radio stations.
The kids and volunteers had the time of their lives. The track event was a great success. Dan followed up by sending invitations for the first WOW Club night to the kids who participated. He hoped to see five or six show up. Twenty-two teens attended. They loved every minute and kept attending.
Dan knew after the first year he could not lead this ministry alone, and again he spent time in prayer—this time for a partner. God answered his prayers when Dan met Colleen Short, the Northern California Director of Young Life Capernaum (YLC). Since there was no YLC in the Sacramento area, Colleen joined forces with Dan.
A typical WOW Club meeting offers teens a time and place to meet friends, play sports, join in games, eat, listen to music, and hear a short message about God. They also enjoy movie nights, bowling, miniature golf, pizza nights, summer barbecues, and camp.
Since the club offers the perfect occasion for teens to explore a relationship with Jesus Christ, a number of WOW Club members get together for weekly Bible study.
WOW Club leaders are caring adults and college students who are trained to work with teens who have physical and developmental disabilities. Occupational and recreational therapists and other adult volunteers serve as WOW staff. All the leaders desire to see special needs teens receive the love and connections they need. High school students play an important role as peer assistants. They work side-by-side with WOW Club members to give them a chance to participate in every activity.
“Everyone is happy to be here,” says Melissa Codde, a college leader/counselor. “They inspire me to be a better person.”
WOW Club leaders love kids just as they are with a vision of who they can become. Everyone benefits—teens, leaders, counselors, and assistants.
Jacob Miller explained why he enjoys WOW: “It is an open and warm environment where I make friends with kids who have all kinds of special needs. Wonderful people go out of their way to make sure we have a good time.” Jacob smiles. “I’m growing as a person and having a blast.” When asked what his favorite part of WOW Club is, he answered, “Camp.”
Jacob is a senior in high school and has been accepted by William Jessup University. He plans to learn all he can to help others with disabilities. Although he functions from a wheelchair, there is not much he cannot do. He just does it differently.
Nathanael Luis Grachino was at the very first WOW meeting and still attends. He said games are his favorite activities.
Carly Silva has been a WOW Club member for seven years. She said her favorite thing is learning about God.
Ashley Codde has been a WOW Club member since it began. She loves playing basketball, learning about God, and going to camp.
When asked, “What happens when kids graduate? Where do they go?” Dan Brown grins and shakes his head. “They don’t stop. They keep coming to WOW Club.”
One of the highlights on the Sunrise Community Church calendar is WOW Sunday. That’s when WOW Club members lead the morning services. Vans line up in the front of the church, lowering teens in their wheelchairs, and then the kids proceed to the front of the church. Some sing with the praise and worship band. Others give their testimonies about their experience in WOW Club.
One WOW teen sang a duet with his dad—no dry eyes in the audience that day. During another part of the service, the congregation heard letters to God, written by WOW kids. This one was from a young man: “Dear God, Thank you for loving me and giving me WOW friends. I hope to see You soon.” After he signed his name he wrote this. “P.S. I hope You like basketball.”
Sunrise Community Church has witnessed how the ministry of WOW touches hearts—young and old. People get involved. Teens benefit from lasting friendships and the knowledge of God’s love for them. The club has doubled in attendance since the first meeting seven years ago and now includes teens from 30 schools.
Your Own WOW Club
If you are inspired to begin a similar club in your community, review the steps Dan took to make that vision a reality. If you need ideas or guidance along the way, visit the WOW Club page on Sunrise Community Church’s website or visit Young Life Capernaum.
Sue Tornai is a freelance writer in Carmichael, California.