A Special Haven: Kids, Parents Find Respite at Jill's House
MCLEAN, Va. -- The rate of autism is spiraling in the nation. Twelve years ago, just one in 150 children were diagnosed with some form of autism. Now it's one in 68 children.
This means much more special care is needed for many more kids with special needs.
Autism is just one form of disability. Parents of children with special needs often find themselves isolated in a world of near round-the-clock care.
Too Much for Just One
Ten years ago, Army couple Gary and Antonia Woodlin gave birth to a son with autism. But they said as long as they had each other, they knew they could handle it.
"Together we can beat this. We got this," Gary Woodlin recalled. "We'll do it together. There won't be any challenge that he faces that will be that great that the two of us won't be able to handle."
But an unexpected challenge changed all that.
Two years ago, Antonia, who gave up her military career to take care of their son, suddenly died from an aggressive cancer.
"About six weeks after she found out. It was very quick. Very unexpected," Gary said.
Spiritually, Gary could hardly handle Antonia's death.
"It plastered my faith. There's no denying that," he said.
Grief-stricken, this Alexandria, Virginia-based busy soldier struggled on alone and found single parenting almost too much.
"Challenging, overwhelming, depressing," Gary described it. "Sometimes it just seemed that it was going to be an ultimate failure."
Gary and his son Christian lived much more isolated than most families because it was hard going out with the boy or finding others to care for and understand him.
"Because unfortunately, people do judge your child," Gary said.
Then Gary heard about Jill's House in nearby McLean, Virginia, a ministry where trained Christian caregivers lavish love and non-judgmental attention on children with special needs while giving their parents a much-needed break.
"We are taking care of the most vulnerable who are close and precious to God's heart," Denise Daffron, vice president of advancement at Jill's House said.
Denise Daffron, Jill's House VP for Advancement, knows from a devastating personal experience about the pain a crippling disability can bring:
More than half the children who come there have some form of autism. There are also a number suffering from Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other afflictions.
Gary said Christian loves his days among the other children with special needs. The faith and works so openly on display there have helped rejuvenate Gary's faith.
Jill's House is named for Jill Solomon, daughter of McLean Bible Church Senior Pastor Lon Solomon and his wife Brenda.
During Jill's first Thanksgiving, she had 17 Grand Mal seizures in a single day. Over time, this rate and amount of seizures combine to cause severe damage to the brain.
Caring for her grew into an often 24-hour-a-day job that utterly exhausted her parents.
"Just being desperate for a night of rest, a night of sleep, a break is what led them to think 'we need to do something different for families just like ours, because there's nothing out there that exists for them,'" Daffron said of the Solomons.
So the Solomons, their church, and other interested donors built Jill's House as a model for changing the face of disability ministry across the country.
A Magical Sanctuary
It has become a sanctuary and place of joy for folks like the McNeils from Fairfax, Virginia.
They found out several years ago that both children in the family, Waverly and Oliver, suffer from Sanfilippo syndrome, a genetic disorder stealing their physical and mental abilities and likely to kill them before they reach adulthood.
It was a dark day when Waverly and Oliver's parents, Matt and Shannon, heard the fatal verdict for Waverly.
"Shannon's first question to the doctor... actually a room full of doctors, which is never a good sign, was 'Is she going to die?' The doctor very matter-of-factly said 'Yes,'" Matt McNeil said.
But little Waverly, not knowing about the deadly result of Sanfilippo syndrome, had no idea as the family drove away from the doctors.
"Waverly was in the backseat singing, 'If You're Happy and You Know It,'" Matt recalled.
"It was just heartbreaking to see her sweet little face in the rearview mirror in the backseat just singing, as happy as though nothing had happened," he said.
Then soon after came the same verdict for Oliver.
As both children began their downward slide, Shannon traded her outside career for what's become all-consuming care and hundreds of therapy sessions.
Just this past year alone, they've had almost 400 appointments.
The days and nights Waverly and Oliver stay at Jill's House give Matt and Shannon rejuvenating breaks they say help them be better parents.
And it's magic for the kids.
"It allows us to experience and see them have experiences that we thought they'd never have. They get to have sleepovers and go to day camp," Matt said.
Facing the Odds
The McNeils gladly accept the help because they realize the odds are stacked against them -- and their marriage.
"Having a child with special needs, your divorce rate goes up. The loss of a child, it goes up. The loss of two? It's pretty high," Shannon stated.
And they see their children bring out the best in some people, like those caregivers at Jill's House and friends and family who now reach out to help not just Waverly and Oliver, but other folks with special needs.
"I love finding those moments of grace and beauty that our kids have kind of inspired," Shannon said.
Daffron suggested people let God lead them in the best way to reach out to family or friends who might be in similar situations.
"You don't see these families out and about in the community because it's difficult for them to be there. It's difficult for them to even just go to church," she explained. "Just embrace them. Start something simple. You don't have to do something as big as Jill's House."
A Ready-Made Mission
One plan already becoming a reality in some parts of the country includes using Christian camp facilities during their off-season because they are ready-made getaways for care and rest.
Daffron said if individuals do reach out, they'll likely experience wonders and surprises -- like what people witnessed from Jill's House visitor, Sean.
Sean is a teenager who was told he'd likely never speak. But after spending time at Jill's House he suddenly said his first two words: "Jill's House."
Another blessing is Max, born without eyes, who fills Jill's House with beautiful music as he feels out the notes and plays the keyboard in the facility's chapel.
Check out more stories like these by clicking here to visit Jill's House YouTube channel.
Matt McNeil believes there are few deeds more divine than reaching out to these children.
"Jesus says, 'What you do to the least of these, you do unto me,'" Matt quoted.
"It is hard to think of someone who counts more as 'the least of these' than a kid who is born with everything stacked against them."
It's a ready-made mission for caring hearts.