Letting Their Light Shine

Greg Robson

One family’s journey with Access Ministries

We are called as Christians to love everyone: coworkers, enemies, neighbors, the vulnerable, the marginalized and everyone else in between. To that degree, embracing the gospel is always being inclusive and finding the time to let others shine their light to the world.

It is under these principles that Access Ministries was launched at Northland. Since that time, countless families have had their lives favorably impacted. One such family is Mari and John Leatherman and their children, 10-year-old son Xavier and 9-year-old daughter Leia. Both children have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and, with the help of Access Ministries, are making the most of every day.

The Leathermans have attended Northland for two decades, having first met while participating in Northland’s singles ministry, and were married at Northland back when the chapel was active and busy. Becoming a parent is something Mari thanks God for every day.

“I never expected to get married, I never expected to have kids, but we were blessed with two amazing children,” she says. “They were perfectly placed into our lives by God. They have given us a gift of service and have taught us patience.”

As soon as both Xavier and Leia were born, the Leathermans knew they wanted them both to be part of Northland. Xavier did co-op at a year old, and both Mari and John noticed he was not socializing at the rate of the others in the co-op. Soon thereafter, they found out he was on the autism spectrum. A similar diagnosis would follow for Leia.

Ultimately, the Leathermans felt drawn to Access Ministries, and in 2010, both Leia and Xavier began to participate. That decision has impacted the entire family in boundless ways.

“It’s a place where Xavier and Leia feel welcome,” John says. “There’s an air of understanding there; they’re able to interact with kids on the same level as them. Access Ministries is very open to all walks of life and has open arms for everyone. They are welcoming to all. You are walking into a world different from others, but being involved in Access Ministries has allowed us as parents to learn about other diagnoses and disabilities. It has opened so many doors.”

John lauds the volunteers who help with Access Ministries for their patience, compassion, and ability to accept, relate to and interact with everyone, despite their many differences. To that degree, he notes that his greatest hope in having his children participate in Access Ministries is that their time will better prepare them to know God and become active members of church. “You never know if and when that will happen because they all develop at a different pace.”

In the 10 years that Xavier and Leia have participated in Access Ministries, their maturation has been noticeable. Mari’s face lights up when she speaks about it.

“Without a doubt, Access Ministries has improved their social skills, especially Leia’s. She’s such a talker now, and that never used to be the case. As a result of interacting with others, Xavier is now high-functioning and far more patient. Leia is much more sociable. When she sees others playing, she wants to fit in, and sometimes she can’t. But by having other friends, she feels encouraged and guided to participate.”

Of all the activities Xavier and Leia have participated in, perhaps the most memorable are the Christmas and Easter picnics at Bruce Pemberton’s home.

“He has his yard set up with a train that the children can ride, and that’s always been ... a yearly highlight,” Mari says.

But if there’s an event that has shaped their maturation the most, it is the second Saturdays every month, when Leia and Xavier participate in Nathaniel’s Hope Buddy Break. Though they’ve been involved in Buddy Break since 2010, it wasn’t a decision that came easily. Mari laughs when she thinks about it now, but she remembers, “I was hesitant at first. I did not want to leave them in the hands of other volunteers. As a parent of a child with special needs, you’re very protective. You have a special bond, and you aren’t fully trusting of others. But over time that has changed.”

Both Mari and John illuminate when talking about Buddy Break and point out that Xavier and Leia look forward to the second Saturday every month, without fail. The Saturday fun day allows them a chance to be independent and be around their friends as well as make new friends. Additionally, each time they participate, they come away with a new experience and learn a new craft.

“Leia has friends she can’t wait to see at church, and Xavier has a friend who looks forward to seeing him at church whenever he’s here,” Mari says. An example of those lasting friendships is during a recent visit to Walmart when both Xavier and Leia had friends approach them to say hello. Caught off guard by the new faces, Mari asked who they were and how they knew them. They replied, eyes widening, “Buddy Break.”

Though neither Xavier nor Leia is old enough for Joy Prom, that’s an event John and Mari are eager to embrace. Mari notes, “Xavier does not get to dress up too often, so it will be a big event for him. Leia loves to dress up, so I’m certain it will be a major event.” Leia’s love of dressing up has been apparent every spring at the daddy-daughter dance, which John and Leia have been participating in since she was nine months old.

Looking back at their 10 years at Access Ministries, Mari feels blessed by the impact the ministry has had on her children’s ability to socialize. “The biggest blessing is that while they are both on the spectrum, people are drawn to them, and they don’t even realize it. They can both strike up conversation with others as a result of their experiences at Access Ministries.”

While the Leathermans are just one family Access Ministries has impacted, there are countless others who have seen their children’s lives transformed as a result of the many dedicated volunteers who give children with special needs the opportunity to call Northland their own. Though many parents might possess the same fears Mari and John had in 2010, that embrace of the unknown is a beacon to heaven, a clarion call of surrender to the very same God that knit them together.