Lessons Come to Life Outside the Classroom

Classes, outdoor school, Bible study, the Mt. Ellis climb, skiing, sports, work, worship, mission trips—are all integral parts of a Mt. Ellis Academy (MEA) education. This is because academics, spiritual experiences and adventure all contribute to real life lessons: thinking and applying knowledge to life, enjoying and experiencing God’s creation, being a servant in God’s kingdom, and making lifelong friends—with each other and with their God.

This year just a few of those life lessons were learned off campus. Friendship, fun and servanthood came wrapped up in a unique package at a place called Eagle Mount. An organization that provides therapeutic activities for people with both physical and developmental disabilities, Eagle Mount relies heavily on volunteers. MEA was invited to participate in their Saturday Night Out, a once-a-month event in which parents drop off their children for four hours of games, crafts, singing and supper, while the parents benefit from an evening “off.”

Not surprisingly, students who volunteered felt some anxiety about their initial encounters. The participants, aged four to 21, have a range of disabilities such as cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, autism and developmental delays. “My first 15 minutes I didn’t know what to do,” said senior Marsha Barrick.

They soon came to understand that the children at Eagle Mount are just like children everywhere. They want to play, read, have fun—and be loved and understood. Communication was sometimes a challenge, but students learned to ask more questions, and to “listen” to body language.

Jennifer Cooley, a freshman, remembers it as a two-way street. “They knew we would probably have difficulties, so they were patient with us. As long as we both tried, it was okay.”

Upon arrival, students are paired with a child for the evening and help to guide their partners through the activities. The activities are simple: painting a picture, reading a book, playing a board game, singing songs, and visiting Eagle Mount’s miniature pony, Smidget. The personalities present are as diverse as the children themselves. Some are open and easy to love, while others present more challenges.

Junior Sarah Holloway remembers her first experience as “very much like dealing with a youngster that just wants to cause problems. It was kind of interesting chasing him around trying to keep him out of trouble.” This doesn’t keep her from returning, however. “Any experience you can learn from is a good experience,” she says.

Other students were deeply moved. “I felt like I couldn’t have done anything better with my life than what I did that night,” said Barrick.

“I was almost in tears because I felt like I had touched someone,” said Jamie Riddle, MEA freshman. But she also realized that the benefits went both ways. “Afterward I felt really good about myself,” she added.

Vicki Luquette, Eagle Mount program director, agrees. "The Saturday Night Out program provides an invaluable opportunity to see and interact with someone who is different from yourself. The volunteers benefit,” she says. “On the flip side, it gives participants an opportunity to socialize with someone close to their age and practice ‘normal’ socialization. They feel good about themselves when someone so ‘cool’ cares about them and wants to play with them.” She points out that, even though children have disabilities, they are still cognizant of when someone doesn’t want to play with them because they are “different."

Beginning in December, MEA volunteers have participated monthly, becoming an important part of Eagle Mount’s volunteer program. “We literally couldn’t run a single one of our programs without volunteers,” says Luquette. Regarding MEA students in particular, she says, “They are extremely mature and very dependable, and they do an excellent job here with the kids. I am thrilled to have them involved. I hope they get at least some part of that back.”

And they already have. Cooley said she had to return to Eagle Mount because she only got to know one of the kids. "After getting to know Skylehr, I wanted to get to know more of them,” she said.

Students become animated when talking about the children at Eagle Mount. “[Jacob] was just a blast!” said Barrick. “All he wanted to do was put icing on the cookies—he was so excited about that. … He had wonderful eyes.”

“Chloe was really sweet. She just kept kissing my hand!” laughed Riddle.

These are just some of the amazing people and simple activities that became significant. Icing a cookie, playing a little basketball, reading a book, making a guitar from a tissue box, holding a little hand, … each became meaningful to a group of MEA students and had a part in their life education.

July 01, 2005 / Montana Conference