photos by Letty Weeks
Merriam-Webster's definition of a harbor is “a place of security and comfort.” When any parent comes to church, they want to know that their child is safe, being cared for, and learning about God’s love for them.
The Harbor at First Baptist Church Starkville is a very special ministry. It is a place where children of all different abilities can come and learn about God while parents do the same, knowing their child’s needs are being met.
When our only child, Emma, was born in 2010, she went into the bed babies class at about two months old, just like every newborn baby at FBC. At that time, we had no clue how much that class was going to minister to us over the years. That following spring, when she was seven months old, Emma was diagnosed with a metabolic disorder which caused her to have developmental delays along with various other needs. With this diagnosis, we found ourselves in a whole new world with no “What to Expect” book for special needs. However, Charity Gwaltney, our preschool minister, made it her priority to make sure Emma always had a place in the nursery where she was cared for.
Emma started physical, speech and occupational therapies when she was about five months old. This was a great place to connect with other parents who found themselves in similar situations. Fast-forward a couple of years to the fall of 2013 when Emma was offered a chance to attend a preschool. Project Impact at the T. K. Martin Center for Technology and Disabilities on our beautiful MSU campus was just what Emma needed. This preschool is for children with various special needs, and many of the same kids and families who were attending therapy also attended T. K. Martin. But there were also some new faces, and this is where I met a sweet mom, Laura Whatley, and her precious daughter, Ellie.
The Whatley family moved to Starkville from Greenwood so that their youngest daughter, Ellie, could attend the T.K. Martin Center. Christopher and Laura have three girls: Mary Frances (10), Grace (7) and Ellie (5). When they were expecting Ellie, they prepared just like they had for their other two girls. They welcomed her into their loving family not knowing the path God was going to lead them down.
When Ellie was about six months old, they realized that she wasn’t meeting milestones like they had seen with Mary Frances and Grace. After numerous doctor appointments and tests, they still did not have an exact diagnosis, but they knew they were going to be headed down a different path than they had with their older daughters. At this point, Christopher and Laura now found themselves in the world of special needs families. They started therapy for Ellie in Greenwood, and this became their new normal.
A defining moment in this journey for Laura started off as another typical day. She dropped the older girls off at school, Christopher headed out for work, and Laura took Ellie to therapy and doctor appointments. As she did every morning, she was driving and talking to God about her family. But that day, she needed Him more. She felt overwhelmed and didn’t feel that she could handle things on her own. When she pulled into a drive-through to get some coffee, the cashier told her the lady in front of her had paid and wanted her to have something. He handed her a card with Isaiah 41:10: “Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed because I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”
God was there, and He had always been. Laura finally turned all of her burden over to Him, and He so clearly revealed Himself to her. She began to embrace what God was presenting instead of fighting it. She learned to trust Him more and to remember that His ways and plans are so much better.
It was through word of mouth that they heard about the T. K. Martin Center and the preschool it had to offer. Laura and Ellie were the first to come to Starkville in the fall of 2014. Through different people they knew, someone found them a place to live at the last minute, while Christopher and the older girls remained in Greenwood. Laura and Ellie would head back on the weekends, but she knew they couldn’t keep going on like this. In January of 2015, the older girls moved to Starkville and started school. At first, they were going to attend Starkville Academy, but at that time of year there were no openings for both girls. Instead, Mary Frances went to Sudduth Elementary as a first grader and Grace attended CLC at First Baptist. While Laura was in Starkville, she met a young couple who had no children but loved her kids and helped her and the girls feel welcome. They babysat so Laura could run errands and occasionally took the older girls to Wednesday night activities at First Baptist.
Laura remembers meeting my mom, Tricia Daniel, at T. K. Martin one day when they were dropping off the girls. She introduced herself as Emma’s grandmother and invited them to visit FBC. Laura thought to herself, “Oh that’s nice, but what will we do with Ellie?” Looking back now, Laura could see God leading them to what would soon be their church family.
Christopher’s job responsibilities kept him on the road much of the time and his territory was not close to Starkville, so he remained in Greenwood and divided his time between the two. When he was here on the weekends, the Whatleys wanted to find a church home but feared there wouldn’t be a place for Ellie.
A young teacher at T. K. Martin attended the Methodist church and could occasionally watch Ellie there so Laura and Christopher could attend church. Even through this young girl’s generosity, there still wasn’t a guaranteed place for Ellie to go every time there was something going on at church. Christopher and Laura had just accepted that they would not always be able to go as a family. You see, when your child with special needs is a baby or toddler, it is “easy” to go places like church because their needs aren’t much more than a baby’s needs. However, as they get older and bigger, even their behaviors can become a challenge. You just can’t walk into places where you aren’t completely sure they will be fine, and you can’t, with any assurance, comfortably leave them in the care of others.
I didn’t realize how God was using my friendship with Laura to open my eyes to the families that we had been running into at therapy and school who might not have a place to confidently attend church. Without our church family to walk with through some of our most trying moments, Casey and I would be lost. I wanted other families to be able to feel the love and sense of belonging that we had.
I began talking with my mom about the desire God was putting on my heart for a special needs class at our church. They do it in schools, so why not church? Little known to us, God had been working on several people’s hearts and brought us all together, and, as all good Baptists do, we formed a committee. In the summer of 2015, we started meeting, and we were just trying to figure out how to make this work. Leah Frances Eaton, our children’s minister, had already set aside a room in the new Children’s Building in hopes of one day having a special needs classroom. God was already at work.
That August we began to pray for teachers. We wanted to make sure that each family who brought their child felt comfortable that the people they were leaving them with knew what they were doing.
Jason Duran, our Family Minister, was our main facilitator between our group and the church. We would tell him what we needed and he got it done. To see our church family and staff respond the way in which they did was such a ministry to us of how God’s people come together when they felt called.
Traci Campbell, Emma and Ellie’s teacher at T. K. Martin, started visiting our church that year with their family because they felt God calling them to serve in a different capacity beyond the church where they were currently members. Little did Traci know that she would become our Sunday School teacher!
I could see all of this coming together and was longing for the Whatleys to attend, but the class wasn’t going to begin until later that year. I continued to invite Laura and her family to church, and she finally politely asked, “What will we do with Ellie?” I called a few of the ladies on the committee, and Jan Houston excitedly said Ellie could come to her 3-year-old Sunday School class. I immediately called Laura and told her, “We have a place for Ellie!” She was taken aback at how quickly the church responded. A few weeks later the whole Whatley family came to church knowing there was a place for each member of their family. Laura and Christopher remember Charity waiting at the door, ready to welcome Ellie into the Children’s Building for the first time.
That summer Emma and Ellie were able to attend Vacation Bible School with the help of Traci and other volunteers. I had already accepted that Emma would probably never go to VBS and that this was not the end of the world. But I can’t begin to tell you how giddy I was when I bought Emma’s first VBS shirt. She was going to be able to go with all her friends! As Laura has said to me before, “It has always been their older girls go to their school and Ellie to hers. The older girls go to gymnastics and dance and Ellie has therapies.” It was at VBS that year that Mary Frances, their oldest, realized that Ellie was going to get to do the same thing they were doing!
August of 2016, the Harbor opened its doors to some of God’s most precious children. I can’t speak for all the parents in the class, but for me this was the first promotion Sunday I didn’t dread. You see, Emma had never promoted out of bed babies. While we were so thankful and grateful for how well she was taken care of in there, I also saw all of her same-aged peers moving up each year. My skin got thicker as the years went on, but that Sunday, August 7, 2016, we felt just like the rest of the families moving their children up to the next class. For Christopher and Laura, they knew that this class wasn’t specifically made because of Ellie, but the church made them feel that it was by making sure every member of their family’s needs was being met, including Ellie’s. They felt like they mattered.
There are several other families who are now attending church and serving in different areas because there is a place here for their child. Pastor Chip is always referencing the fact that God places every member in our church family as a part of the body for a specific reason. I believe that Emma and Ellie and those who have come before them helped to bring awareness of the needs of families with these precious children.
We have grown to love this unexpected life and all the challenges that have come along with it. This wouldn’t have been possible, though, without God continually growing our faith in Him through His Word and His people. He gives us hope which only He can provide when things aren’t easy. Without a church family around us, this walk would be a lot harder.
As God tells us in Psalms 139:13-16: “For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.”
God did not make a mistake when He made Emma and Ellie. We pray that you see them as God sees them. They are precious in His sight and will continue to do what God created them for: bringing joy, teaching compassion and most importantly, showing the love of God.