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  • Writer's pictureThe Eagle

Special Needs, Equal Opportunities - Capernaum Seeks Those Who Feel All Belong

Capernaum girls come together to show off their creations after a paint night. (Courtesy Photo)

By Emma Duncan--Eagle Editor

A typical Monday night for some Eagles includes going to YoungLife (YL) club to sing, play games, and hear a short Bible lesson relating to the struggles of teen life. There's another gathering the following night, called Capernaum, where a special group of students find the same fellowship, joy, and acceptance.

“Capernaum is probably best described as organized chaos,” Leader Sarah Ellis began. “A meeting typically begins with all of us eating dinner together as we talk and catch up. Once everyone is finished with dinner we have a leader give a club talk and we learn a memory verse in sign language. We end with a fun game and music!”

While anyone is welcome at YoungLife, Capernaum is geared toward those with special needs.

“I have always felt like the disabled community is often unintentionally excluded from certain things,” Ellis shared. "I felt called to help everyone have the opportunity to come and see what Christ is all about.”

Somehow, this group of friends is finding themselves one step behind the rest once again. While YoungLife is well staffed and present in the community, with multiple leaders flowing in and out of the program, Capernaum is mainly led by just two people.

It wasn't always this way though, because some FCHS students (called Campaigners) who regularly attended YoungLife went through training to become buddies and/or junior leaders for their friends with special needs. They add to the love, support, and encouragement found at Capernaum.

Capernaum members wrap Christmas presents for Operation Christmas Child during the holidays. (Courtesy Photo)

“I became a junior leader with Capernaum because of how involved I was with YoungLife,” 2021 Graduate Jackson Nicholson explained. “I have always loved working with the special needs community and saw this as a way to continue to do that. Capernaum is getting the word of God into the areas that usually don’t get to hear it.”

Nicholson is studying at Averett University, though, so his Tuesday nights are more so filled with schoolwork instead of social time. Emily Egenberg, past buddy and 2021 graduate, is in the same boat, as she's now at Virginia Tech. Her and Nicholson reportedly loved their time at Capernaum, and hope others will fill their shoes soon.

"I absolutely loved my time with Capernaum," Egenberg remembered. "I started off as a buddy... and after a few months was asked to become a junior leader. I got to plan activities and club talks. I loved my girls and had so much fun singing Disney songs or laughing until we snorted. [I] 10/10 recommend becoming a buddy. It opens your eyes to the challenges that disabled people face. Everyone in Capernaum is so sweet! It's unlike any other outreach program and really changed my life."

She went on to describe the required, yet small, training program she completed to become a buddy turned junior leader.

"We had a day where we went over how to best care for our friends, what to do in an emergency, and what things we aren't responsible for (like the clean up of bodily fluids). Other than that it's mostly on the job training and learning what things our friends like and dislike," Egenberg explained.

Egenberg and Nicholson were some of the first junior leaders and buddies at Capernaum, as the program is just 2 years old, beginning shortly after Ellis graduated high school.

“I began Young Life leadership training in the Fall of 2017, and once I was approved to lead I needed to be placed," Ellis retold. " My area director (at the time) Isaac Nagle called me and said there were two placement options: Henry County as a YL leader or to start Capernaum here in FranCo. It was an easy choice as I was so excited about Capernaum, so we began hosting interest meetings to get Capernaum started! After gathering leaders, buddies, parents, participants, financial donors, etc., Capernaum officially began meeting in the summer of 2019.”

Even though it's only existed a short time, Capernaum has touched countless lives since it's launch. Some members are currently students here, but others friends have already gone through school or are home schooled. Regardless, everyone is welcome.

“I want to go to Capernaum because my best friends forever go there,” Jasmine Peters, who attends Capernaum, exclaimed. “Sarah is my friend, too! Sarah and Susan teach about the Bible verses. We learn the sign language.”

Jasmine’s mom, Sara Peters, has noticed how the joy of finding worth in the Lord and meeting friends just like her has affected her daughter.

From left to right: Ashton Bryant, Jasmine Peters, and Suzanne Polzella have been friends since they were little, and continue to bond at Capernaum. (Courtesy Photo)

“Jasmine enjoys attending youth events with our church; there is a special connection, however, with the other young adults at Capernaum,” she commented. “She asks every Tuesday morning if they are having a meeting. And often, she asks many, many more times each week! Jasmine enjoys the camaraderie, the silliness, and also the Biblical lessons Sarah teaches at Capernaum. Most people in our lives are kind to Jasmine, but there are few who truly love her as she is. Sarah ranks among our top five, and we are incredibly grateful for Sarah and her Kingdom-focused work with Jasmine and others who have special needs!”

This opinion is shared by other parents, including Ashton Bryant's mom, Joanie Bryant.

“Our daughter was born with Down syndrome, diagnosed at four years old with autism, and diagnosed three years ago with depression," she explained. "There were days our daughter was not well enough to attend Capernaum, but on the days she could, all the leaders would help her participate in the activities and make sure she was included in everything. It means so much to us to see her laughing, interacting with others, playing games, and praying to God. It gives Ashton the opportunity to get out and be with friends when she rarely gets any other opportunities to [do so].”

Ashton Bryant remains still as a stone during a "Minute to Win It" game. (Courtesy Photo)

Despite Ashton's disabilities, her presence seems to make just as big an impact on those around her as they’ve in turn made on Ashton.

“If I had to pick my favorite memory from being a junior leader it would be when we had our drive in movie night. I was walking around to visit our Capernaum friends and Ashton noticed one of my bracelets that I had on and she pointed at it with a shy smile on her face,” Nicholson recalled. “So, I gave her the bracelet and the way she looked at it with a huge smile made my day.”

According to Ellis, moments like what Nicholson described are commonplace at Capernaum.

Any students interested in becoming a buddy for Capernaum, having questions, or knowing a friend with special needs who may want to get involved is encouraged to contact Ellis by email at or by text at (540)-243-0248.

“There are no requirements for participants or their families in order for them to be involved in Capernaum,” Ellis assured. “Everyone is welcome and wanted at our table!”

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