To say Laurie Little is a familiar face around Matthews United Methodist Church would be an understatement.
Little has worked with the church’s youth, college students and young adults for 27 years. But at the end of the month, Little will step down from her post as director of youth, college and young adult ministries to pursue the avenue she says God has led her to: helping individuals with disabilities.
“I always felt the calling from God to be in (some kind of) ministry, and that’s where he’s directed me,” Little said.
Working with individuals with disabilities isn’t new to Little. Her 25-year-old son Will has microcephaly – a neurodevelopmental disorder – and enduring the ups and downs Will experienced as a child inspired Little to launch a summer day camp for disabled youth 19 years ago.
The camp, Rainbow Express, runs each year during the second week of July at Matthews United Methodist. Since its inception, the program has grown from the about 10 campers who attended the first camp to the more than 100 campers who showed up this year.
An important aspect of Rainbow Express, Little said, is that it gives the church’s youth a chance to meet people with disabilities and interact with them on a personal level. The camp is almost entirely student-led, with a few adults on hand as overseers.
It also gives children of all ages an opportunity to meet and forge relationships with these individuals, as each camper is paired up with a “peer buddy” – someone their own age – as well as a youth camp worker.
Campers are split into two age groups – ages 5 to 12 and 13 to 18 – and participate in a variety of age-appropriate activities. Younger children visit Bible study centers, make crafts and sing songs, while older youth campers go bowling, ice skating and do mission work.
Because Rainbow Express has grown so much, Little launched an evening camp for individuals with disabilities ages 19 and older this year during the same week as the day camp. The program paired camp attendees with young adult volunteers from the church for activities like cooking, painting canvasses, bowling, mission work, praise and worship and Bible study.
The success of Rainbow Express has opened doors for international missions, as well. Little has led two groups to Haiti to visit Wings of Hope – a family home for children and young adults with disabilities. Teams hosted the first Rainbow Express camp for Wings of Hope residents in January 2012 and returned in May of this year for a second camp.
The team also used Rainbow Express to reach out to the Haitian youth in the community surrounding Wings of Hope, encouraging them to volunteer during the camp and meet the residents.
“In Haiti, individuals with disabilities are often totally looked down upon,” Little said. “One of our big goals was … to change some of that mindset (through) a very loving model that challenged (the Haitian volunteers) to continue to visit these guys at Wings of Hope and continue that mission.”
Little said it’s been “very difficult” stepping down after so many years of service at Matthews United Methodist.
“I never really anticipated not being in youth ministry,” she said. “I love teenagers. I love them so much, just to watch them grow in their faith and to watch Christ work through them. What a privilege.”
But in the midst of the tears, there’s also joy and excitement, Little said, as she strives to expand Rainbow Express to reach more individuals with disabilities – particularly young adults – on a daily basis. She hopes to begin by partnering with more churches in the area to launch programs for this “forgotten” group.
“It’s a black hole after high school for young adults with special needs. That’s a huge gap in ministries,” Little said. “It’s heartbreaking. These are absolutely awesome, contributing adults that have so much to offer. That’s where I feel God is leading me, to this gap in ministry where, perhaps, I could be useful.”