Driving in downtown Van Alstyne, it becomes apparent that this town should know how to do a Vacation Bible School. Vintage churches constructed decades ago in beautiful styles hoist colorful banners atop their stairway entrances that advertise their individual VBS programs for children now at home for the summer.
While First United Methodist of Van Alstyne also hosts a VBS program just like most churches, during the week of July 10-14 the church played host to a different group of VBS children and volunteers. Hope Crossing is a VBS program that's unique in the sense that it's geared towards children with special needs. This past week marked Hope Crossing's second year.
“This camp (is) for kids with autism, sensory processing disorder, anxiety, depression, or any other symptom that would keep them from being in a normal VBS setting where things can get loud or there are just too many people with too many things going on around them for them to cope,” Van Alstyne resident Debbie Nance said in an email. Her daughter, Brandi Stowers, helps direct Hope Crossing VBS in Van Alstyne. “It is a great camp and we have hopes of growing it to one that is beyond our imagination.”
Stowers said her journey in working with children who have special needs began when her son Carter was born. Carter is now 9 years old and is autistic, and Stowers and her mom said he needed programs that were more suited to his needs.
“We can't do the regular VBS, so he needs a smaller crowd, without the noises,” Stowers said. “So that's why we decided to branch out and maybe do one.”
Nance agreed, adding that she and her husband Garry were involved with a special needs camp called SEEK in Bridgeport, Texas. Her experience with this camp helped her know what kind of options to expect for Carter.
“It was sometimes a very dark road for my daughter and her husband and also for me and her dad,” Nance said in an email. “… We knew what we were facing and that there are not a lot of avenues for these type of kids. Carter did not like loud noises. He does not like a large group of people and a lot of times that is exactly what VBS is — a lot of people making a lot of noise in a small area. This is the reason that Hope Crossing was started, for these kids that can have some type of VBS experience, but with their existing circumstances taken into consideration.”
The crowd at the church this past week was smaller, and while it was considerably quieter than most VBS programs, there were still some loud moments as children could hardly contain themselves with shouts of glee or raucous laughter. Stowers said there were 14 children signed up for Hope Crossing, and each child had about two youth volunteers or one adult each to help chaperone them. These children were presented with five different messages to take home with them at the end of each night: “God made you,” “God is for you,” “God is always with you” and “God made you for a reason.” Stowers said that her program recycled what the church used for its traditional VBS, but tailored specific elements of it to fit her students.
“I really like this one because it's talking about that God made you the way you are,” she said. “Just because you're different, it doesn't mean anything — there's a reason why you're here. So even though it was chosen by the church, it still fit perfectly for us.”
Just like most VBS programs, there was an opening ceremony before the students were dismissed to their different stations. After 20 minutes the students would rotate stations, which included story time, drama, music, arts and crafts, games and snack time. At each station the children were able to interact with their teachers and the VBS volunteers individually and do their activities in a way that suited them.
Angelica Botello and Tanner McCaroll volunteered with Hope Crossing last year, and came back to experience the VBS and its students once again. They had both also spent time volunteering at SEEK camp.
“It's fun, they're awesome,” Botello said. “Just growing that bond between them and seeing how they're just like everyone else and they just want to have the same exact fun we do, … it's amazing.”
McCaroll added that he likes to see how the children interact with the volunteers and with each other.
“And to see their smiles as they're running around having fun,” he said.
Stowers said she has exceptional volunteers, but pointed out that each year presents a challenge of finding youth and adult volunteers who are motivated to help with a program like this. She had more students this year than the year before, she said, and the hardest part is finding the volunteers to help keep the program running. She's looking for people who have a heart for helping others and building relationships with children who need some extra love. She said that's the whole point of Hope Crossing.
“I want them (the students) to come and just enjoy it and be able to participate and maybe get something out of it,” she said. “Instead of maybe just sitting down and being in the corner, they're able to have fun.”
To find out more about Hope Crossing VBS, visit its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/hopecrossingfumcva/.