Everything was fine until Joshua was 15 months old…or so Debi and Edwin Reyes thought. “We thought he was an exceptional baby, that he was just happy, that he was super-baby,” Debi says. “But looking back we realize the signs were there that he was having sensory issues.” After a routine immunization, Josh lost his words and the doctors told the family that boys just developed slowly. “Deep down in my heart,“ Debi says, “I knew something was wrong, but I wasn’t ready to admit it.”
At his 18-month appointment, after many visits to check and recheck his development, the doctor saw Josh flapping his arms and finally made a referral to a specialist. Josh was diagnosed as “delayed” and began intensive therapy. Therapists came into the house 25-30 hours every week during Debi’s second pregnancy.
Although Josh was identified as delayed, it was not until age three that specialists diagnosed him with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Debi and Edwin remember that appointment in vivid detail. “We were told to be prepared to put Josh in a group home: that he would never speak, be able to dress himself or be able to participate in normal activities. We were in a very dark place after his ASD diagnosis. We called it ‘the bubble.’” All Debi and Edwin knew is they needed to find a way to help their son.
“We were told to be prepared to put Josh in a group home: that he would never speak, be able to dress himself or be able to participate in normal activities.”
The next few years were filled with doctors and therapists. Debi says she went into overdrive searching the Internet for anything that would help her son. Debi and Edwin said, adding to each other’s thoughts, “The enormity of the experience of taking care of Joshua was like a heavy blanket over us that weighed us down.” The only one they felt they could depend on was God, and He wasn’t answering.
Coming from a Pentecostal background where Debi learned to “pray problems away,” her faith was deeply challenged when solutions weren’t readily apparent. Like so many people whose lives are impacted by disability, Debi remembers driving into the park, sitting in her car, and just screaming at God, asking Him why this was happening to their family. As Edwin worked 12-hour shifts five days a week to provide for the family, Debi was home with two young children, dealing with Josh’s profound needs.
Things changed for the Reyes family with one significant encounter; as Debi sought out ways to process her own feelings, she found Laura Lee Wright, who was a leader at Northland Church’s support group for families impacted by special needs. “As a home church,” Debi says, “it was our salvation.” Then Laura Lee introduced the Reyes family to Lift Disability Network’s Breakaway Camp. “It was then,” Debi recalls, “that everything took a turn for the better.”
Even though Debi would say that she was likely the mom who came to camp with her guard up the highest, things changed. “Lift Disability Network became a light, a beacon in a very dark and stormy night,” Debi says. The Reyes family couldn’t fathom having a normal life with disability in it, but at Breakaway Camp they were introduced to the world of disability as a different kind of normal. It was life changing for them to truly begin to embrace special needs in a way that they hadn’t even considered.
Better yet, Josh loves Breakaway Camp! Since Josh knows his months based on holidays, he knows it’s summer because Breakaway Camp is on the schedule. In fact, now at 14, in his sixth year at camp this past summer, his therapist made a calendar for him that helped him count backwards to Breakaway. Debi says, “Josh would come to breakfast each morning and say, ‘Good Morning. 46 more days ‘til Breakaway.’” Debi and Edwin suggest that Breakaway, and the monthly BOOST program, are the one place where Josh realizes he’s not different, that everyone is accepted. “He feels comfortable in the community,” Edwin says. Both Debi and Edwin say if they could take the Breakaway experience and apply it to their lives 24/7, it would be the ultimate life.
In addition, “Breakaway,” Debi says, “allows typical siblings to be typical siblings. Rebekah has made friends with other kids in the same situation. It’s been just as important for her.” Edwin adds, “Breakaway Camp is our family vacation. It’s safe, people are loved, and it’s not scary for Josh.” Debi says, “At camp, people totally know where you’re coming from. Unless you live it 24/7, you don’t get it. You can try to empathize, but you don’t get it. Breakaway has become a family reunion.” “Lift is the most genuine group of people with a heart for Jesus that I’ve ever met.”
“Josh’s quality of life is immeasurably better than if we had not come in contact with Lift Disability Network and Northland Church. They have allowed us to say ‘yes, we can do this.’”
Josh has proven the doctors wrong, over and over again. “He’s talking, communicating, loving and affectionate,” says Debi. “He’s humorous. He’s a unique kid!” And says the family, “Josh’s quality of life is immeasurably better than if we had not come in contact with Lift Disability Network and Northland Church. They have allowed us to say ‘yes, we can do this.’” Debi says, “We do it different, but we can do it! God answered our prayers, not by removing Joshua’s autism, but by surrounding us with a community who cares and understands.”
Though Debi and Edwin never thought they would be able to help others in similar situations, they are now the parents who are able to encourage other families living with disability. To people dealing with special needs and disability, Debi says, “People should understand you can’t do this alone. You need to surround yourself with people who understand. All it takes is one step, to be brave and say, ‘I’m just going to try reaching out.’”
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