Missy Hearon remembers throwing herself onto her bed and sobbing. Her 3-year-old daughter, Kayla, was losing ground, and the anti-seizure medication doctors prescribed worked only partially. “Get yourself up,” her husband, Mark, said at the time. “There’s a reason for this, and we’ll take this one day at a time.”
More than a quarter-of-a-century later, Missy discovered the reason for her daughter’s trials and now dedicates her time to helping others who face the same challenges.
She and special-needs specialist, Shari Cate, have launched a pilot project for special-needs adults who might otherwise spend their days idly at home. Once a week, these young adults gather at Revolution Church in Maryville, Tennessee, to socialize, restock Sunday school supplies, and do a Bible study and craft.
At 1 PM, they jump into a van and go to work.
“I want to get them out,” Missy says, referring to the program she calls Agape, a Greek word meaning unconditional love. Although other adult programs exist in the area, they don’t offer work opportunities. “I want them to serve the community. We’re going to show them love, and the fact God has a plan for all of us.”
It’s safe to assume Missy never envisioned the path she’s walking. But as Missy’s husband observed long ago, there’s a reason for this.
Kayla’s life started normally. At 10 months, Missy and Mark’s only child started to walk and learned typical first words, like mama and daddy. Nothing seemed amiss until the day she fell face first onto to the floor. Although her pediatrician suggested inner-ear issues, Missy intuited something far worse.
Six months later, an electroencephalogram, or EEG, revealed seizures, so many, in fact, that Kayla couldn’t complete a sentence or concentrate. An anti-seizure medication helped, but Kayla continued to lose ground. By five, she couldn’t speak, and her fine-motor skills had stalled. “She wasn’t even treading water,” Missy says.
About five years later, she and Mark discovered their daughter’s root issues.
A test revealed 3p deletion syndrome, a rare condition where genetic material is missing on chromosome three. Its severity depends on the size and location of the deletion and which genes are involved. Typical symptoms include poor growth, developmental delay, intellectual disability, and autism.
For Kayla, the condition manifests primarily in language. She speaks only two to three words at a time, and often repeats them as in a mantra. “She can take everything in, but she can’t get it back out,” her mother says. “She’s trapped in her own body and needs help getting the words out.”
She’s also suffered from anxiety attacks, and for one year, neither Kayla nor Missy left their home. Something had to give.
Help came from the ABA Interventions/Knoxville Center for Autism. For two years, therapists worked with Kayla three days a week, two-to-three hours each session. They came to Missy’s home, took Kayla grocery shopping and even to church.
Kayla regained her confidence, her skills and she graduated, now an adult.
But now what? In Missy’s heart, she knew God had the answer.
She and Mark felt called to leave the church they’d attended for years. They joined Revolution and within weeks agreed to help manage the church’s growing special-needs Sunday school ministry now serving 20 adults and children, including a young boy whose parents moved from Indiana to Tennessee because of the program.
“I remember one Sunday morning. A mama and daddy were there with their four- or five-year-old daughter,” Missy tells me. “The mama started crying, saying she’d never left her baby. They didn’t go out. I said, ‘Honey, you don’t have to worry. I’ll be her buddy.’ I knew then why I went through what I did…so I could be there for mamas like her.”
There’s a reason for this.
Agape in Action
I’m standing in the basement of a church in Townsend, Tennessee—a tiny burg that promotes itself as the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies.” Amidst the boxes and stacks of canned food, bags of rice, beans, and other staples, are several older women sitting on folding chairs. They started the food pantry nearly three decades ago.
Helpers that day are Missy’s adults, including Kayla, now 29, and three other 30-something adults diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy, and other conditions. The crew has just restocked the FDA-approved cans of food and are now pushing grocery carts in assembly line-like fashion to fill boxes that will be delivered to the needy.
Kayla has been paired with Kelsey, another special-needs adult who navigates the cart and appears to be doing most of the work. “What are you? A mama’s girl?” Kelsey asks, as she leans over, grabs a can and hands it to an unsmiling Kayla, who listlessly puts the can into the box.
And so it goes, until the box is nearly filled, prompting kudos from Missy who’s supervising the pair. That quick, Kayla starts jumping up and down, now smiling broadly. She kisses her mom.
“This is what this program is all about,” Missy says later, as she guides her adults out of the pantry.
There’s a reason for this.