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It was Palm Sunday at Wheaton Bible Church, and the children’s Sunday school classes were marching up and down the aisles of the West Worship Center—literally hundreds of boys and girls waving palm branches like the crowds who lined the streets of Jerusalem on the day of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry, just days before His Crucifixion.
To David and DeeAnn Carlson, that day in 2013, seeing the children with their palm branches, marks their call to serve in the GEMS special-needs ministry at WBC.
The Carlsons had been attending Wheaton Bible Church for about three years and had already found meaningful service helping with the Alpha Course. But with both recently retired and enjoying flexible schedules, they were looking for more serving opportunities.
Even so, they were not expecting the answer to come on Palm Sunday. They remember being in the 9:45 service and watching child after child enter the sanctuary waving palm branches.
“We were just awed by how many children there are in this building on a Sunday morning,” David said.
And then the GEMS children entered.
“It was very moving to see those kids,” he said. “Tears started rolling down my cheeks.”
“We knew right away that was the place that was calling us,” DeeAnn added. “Something we had a heart for.”
David knew what it was like to care for a child with special needs. His son, Justin, was born with a rare chromosome anomaly and epilepsy, which rendered him severely disabled. He lived at home until the age of 18 and then lived in a full-time care facility called Little Angels Center for Exceptional Care until he passed away at the age of 24.
DeeAnn didn’t meet David’s son until a year before his death, when she married David, but she quickly opened her heart to him and the others at the Little Angels home. “I loved being with him, and I loved serving at Little Angels. He was such a special person to me that I felt for him in a way I had never felt before.”
For several years David and DeeAnn served as board members for Little Angels, helping to create bylaws and corporate governance for the nonprofit portion of the organization.
For the past year, they’ve brought their passion for caring for children with special needs to GEMS.
“Every time we’re there is different, but each time is a good time,” DeeAnn says about their experience serving with the children in GEMS. “Another part of the reward is the knowledge that being a parent is hard work and that what we are doing there gives the parents a break.”
David remembers just how difficult parenting a child with special needs can be at times, and he appreciates the volunteers who helped with Justin through the years, making it possible for him to be part of an adult Bible study.
“We’ve benefited from that kind of care, and it’s easy and wonderful to give a little of that back,” he says. “We play a very small part in GEMS, but we are pleased that it allows the parents to go and do their activities and know their children are in a safe place with people who understand their needs.”
When asked if they’ve been able to connect with the kids, David instantly smiles and says, “Oh, yes.” But he admits that it’s not always easy to make a connection. “You need to be willing to slow down and open yourself to the children.”
“Sometimes you just have to be there, watching and listening and trying to find an opening,” David said. “When that happens, it’s precious. And we’ve seen that.”
David and DeeAnn would love to see more people serve in GEMS.
“It’s not important what you say. It’s not important what you do. It’s more important that you be there with your whole heart and soul—that you really be present and love these little children,” DeeAnn adds.
David shared a Bible passage that is at the heart of what motivates them to serve. He turned to Matthew 25:31–40, where Jesus is talking about the end of times, when the Son of Man returns and separates people from one another as a shepherd would separate his sheep from his goats.
David chokes up and his eyes fill with tears. He pauses to collect himself and then continues reading from verse 34:
The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me; I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and cloth you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go visit you?”
The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:34–40)
David is a little emotional as he explains that in many ways, people like his son, Justin—and other children with special needs—are viewed by many as the least in this world.
“It’s both sad and joyful at the same time,” he said. “In some ways, these special kids may seem like the least in God’s Kingdom, but it brings us so much joy knowing that in serving them we are serving the Lord. That’s what brings me to the point of joyful tears.”