St. Andrew’s, Hillsburgh, Ont.

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Hillsburgh, Ontario had something special to celebrate in November 2015. The Special Friends of St. Andrew’s is a recreational program for developmentally challenged adults that began at the church in 1995. Barb Perkins and Chricket Yule, members of St. Andrew’s, saw a real need in the Hillsburgh community for a program for challenged individuals. Together they created the Special Friends Club for Barb’s daughter Becky and three other local teens.

A trial session took place for six Saturdays leading up to Christmas 1995. Each Saturday was filled with Christmas activities such as crafts, cooking, drama, music, games and making lunch together. The smiles of the four teens and the hired staff reassured Barb and Chricket that this club must continue. Some of those same teens are in the program to this day and currently the age range of the participants is 24 to 54.

In early 1996, Barb and Chricket began a local campaign to reach out to the service clubs for financial support. They were guest speakers for the Erin Optimists, Erin Rotary, Erin Lions and the Hillsburgh Lions. Twenty years later, the support continues from these same clubs. Chricket even spoke to the Brampton presbytery years ago when they were meeting in Limehouse. To this day every attempt has been made to keep the community up to date and involved with the program. The local newspaper, The Erin Advocate, has also been an invaluable resource and Chricket writes articles and sends pictures on a regular basis to tell about the activities the Special Friends so enjoy. Nancy McDougall, a parent in the program, also contributes. It is a perfect link.

The three main goals of the program have not changed in 20 years. The first priority has always been to provide a safe and nurturing recreational “friendship circle” and St. Andrew’s Church could not be a more perfect place to be. It is wheelchair accessible in every way and has a bright auditorium with a well equipped kitchen attached. Secondly, the program runs from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. every Saturday which allows the rest of the family members to have a day of respite. Lastly, the Special Friends and their families have formed strong relationships and bonds which enable them to network and support one another. In 1997, the families asked if a day camp could be created, Monday to Friday for seven weeks in the summer. What a huge success and a relief for working parents. This also was a wonderful solution for the Special Friends who would otherwise be sitting at home most summer days. The same goals have continued throughout camp as well. The Saturday sessions run from September to June and the camp is seven weeks in July and August

This small grassroots community supported club has continued to not only survive for 20 years but to truly thrive! Today the Special Friends Club has 12 participants and up to four hired staff. They are a very active group who love to be busy. They cook, have discussions over coffee, make crafts, play sports and games, participate in community events, meet all kinds of animals, dine out, row, swim, golf, bowl, hike, make music, visit private homes, attend concerts, go to the movies, visit parks, and plan all kinds of activities. They even invite talented people in to lead them in workshops for dance, exercise, music, pottery, drumming and art. They also love to host baby showers, wedding showers, parties and potluck dinners. In addition to all of this, life skills are a top priority as their friendships flourish every day they are together.

How do the bills get paid you may ask? The families pay a nominal fee and the annual fundraisers include garage sales, bake sales, furniture sales and car washes. The real financial gifts however are the result of the faithful service clubs, strong personal donations and a grant for camp through Community Living. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church has been the most welcoming, encouraging, accepting and supportive congregation in every way. The Special Friends have even led worship on chosen Sundays by greeting, reading scripture, taking up collection, singing in the choir and hosting coffee hour.

On November 14th, 2015, the Special Friends Club celebrated its 20th anniversary at St. Andrew’s. They hosted a dinner for over 120 friends, family, staff and community supporters. During the speeches everyone present was recognized for their involvement in some way during the past 20 years. St. Andrew’s presented each Special Friend with a framed certificate celebrating the bond between the church and the program. They were received with huge smiles! A fabulous slide show was shared and the evening ended with a dance and DJ. Everything was so perfect.

May the smiles and good times continue…no end in sight!