By Kara Witherow, Advocate Editor
Like many 21-year-old women, Julia Smith enjoys going out to eat, listening to music and attending birthday and holiday parties.
But unlike most other 21-year-olds, she functions at about a 4-year-old level and is unable to live on her own. Diagnosed with autism at age 4, Julia is severely mentally disabled and requires full-time care and assistance.
Julia lived at home with her parents until her mother passed away in 2007. Upon his wife’s death, Julia’s father, Rev. Loran Smith, pastor of Lizella United Methodist Church, faced a difficult decision.
“Ministry is 24/7,” Rev. Smith said, “and after Julia turned 18, to get people who could be available to help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week was next to impossible.”
Familiar with Wesley Glen Ministries and the services they provide to adults with mental disabilities and their families, Rev. Smith visited their main campus in Macon and left even more impressed with the ministry than before. Deciding that it would make a great home-away-from-home for Julia, in February 2008 she moved into her shared house on the Wesley Glen campus. Julia, one of Wesley Glen’s youngest residents, shares the home with three other women.
“It has been nothing but a positive experience for her,” Rev. Smith said. “She’s had a great time and it’s brought her out quite a bit; it was a good move for her in her developmental growth, as well. Julia has enjoyed all of it. Her housemates have become like family to her, and all of the caregivers have been really great.”
Julia’s move to Wesley Glen has brought needed stability to her life, too, said Rev. Smith. And knowing that she’s happy and well taken care of helps him relax and focus on his job.
“If it had not been for Wesley Glen Ministries, I don’t know whether I could have stayed in ministry,” he said. “Wesley Glen has provided for Julia to be cared for and also for me to be able to do what I do.”
A health and welfare ministry supported by the South Georgia Conference, Wesley Glen Ministries provides a loving, supportive home for adults with developmental disabilities who will need some support all their lives, said Rev. John Irwin, Wesley Glen’s chaplain and director of development. Of their 78 residents, the ministry provides around-the-clock care for 42, all with mild to severe mental disabilities.
Sandra Steele was 41 when she moved from her parent’s home on St. Simons Island to Wesley Glen six years ago. Like Julia, she, too, had lived with her parents all her life, but as they aged they decided together, at her doctor’s recommendation, that she should be given the opportunity to “spread her wings and see if she could fly.”
“Sandra’s doctor had said that the time had come for her to have a life of her own,” said her father, retired minister Dr. Ned Steele. “We were getting older and she needed to have her own life.”
Living at Wesley Glen has increased Sandra’s confidence, security and self esteem, said Dr. Steele. She volunteers at the local hospice, and, before the downturn in the economy, worked at Kohl’s.
“I think that being here with people like herself she is not under pressure to try to keep up with people that she couldn’t keep up with,” Dr. Steele said. “I think that she could relax and be at ease about the situation, and then when she learned that she could hold a job, it was good for her and it improved her self esteem. All of it together has been really good for her. She has grown and developed and is very relaxed about the whole situation and is very happy with where she is.”
One of only nine such United Methodist-run ministries in the United States, Wesley Glen meets a real and growing need, said Dr. Steele.
“All parents of handicapped children are concerned about what is going to happen to their child when they are no longer able to care for him or her,” he said. “Wesley Glen, thank God, is an answer to that problem for the parents of the people who are residents of Wesley Glen. We’re blessed by Wesley Glen. The families that are involved are unendingly grateful for what the church, in the spirit of Christ, is doing for these people. They’re secure; they have a home. When we are gone, Sandra has a home, for life, and she knows that. Wesley Glen is going to be home, and she’s secure about that, and that’s worth everything, to know that she’s at peace.”
Rev. Smith also has peace of mind knowing that Julia, who on May 18 graduated from Macon’s Elam Alexander Academy, is being well cared for at Wesley Glen.
“Every parent wonders what will happen to their child if something happens to them, and that is particularly true when you have a mentally handicapped adult child,” he said. “I know that she is cared for and I know that if something happened to me tomorrow and I was unable to look after her or was unable to see her or even if I died I would die with peace of mind knowing that Julia was in a place that she was going to be cared for. Having her at Wesley Glen has made all the difference in the world.
“If I didn’t have Wesley Glen I would be living in anxiety about what was going to happen to Julia,” Rev. Smith said. “But with the commitment of the South Georgia United Methodists and the blessing of the good Lord, she’s cared for for the rest of her days, and that’s the main thing that brings me peace of mind.”
Mentally disabled adults have lifelong needs, and for many the needs last far longer than funds. At Wesley Glen, no resident is turned away because of their inability to pay for services. As a non-profit ministry, Wesley Glen has to raise support to meet their financial obligations. For their 2011 Special Sunday offering, Wesley Glen has set a goal of raising $100,000.
“The folks of the South Georgia Conference have been gracious to support Wesley Glen, but I don’t think they know what a blessing Wesley Glen brings to the lives of the clients they serve and to their families,” Rev. Smith said.
Every local church in South Georgia is encouraged to receive a special offering on Sunday, June 19 to support the ministry of Wesley Glen. To donate and to learn more about Wesley Glen and its ministry, visit www.wesleyglenministries.com.