Son sparks commitment to special students - Word&Way

Son sparks commitment to special students

JEFFERSON CITY — Sarah Barnes recalls when she and others went to Tom Nelson, then pastor of First Baptist Church, Jefferson City, back in 1960, and asked about beginning a Bible study class for handicapped children and adults.

Sarah Barnes works with a student on a recent Sunday morning at First Baptist Church, Jefferson City. She has worked with the class she helped start for her son, Gordon, 51 years ago to meet his needs. The church renamed it the Gordon Barnes Class after Gordon passed away. (Ken Satterfield photo)

The pastor concurred and Barnes has been associated with what began back then as the class for "exceptional persons." She has been the director, teacher and/or substitute teacher ever since. She relates lovingly to the 10 to 12 people of all ages who attend the class.

Fifty-one years ago, the young mother had a vested interest in the class. Her son, Gordon, born with Down syndrome, had reached "junior" age — about 8 — and she felt it was time for him to continue learning in a new class.

Gordon died on April 19 at the age of 59. His mother cared for him at home until he developed Alzheimer's nearly two years ago and suffered a nagging infection following a knee transplant. Placing him in a nursing facility "nearly killed me," his mother admitted.

Gordon was only 6 weeks old when he contracted pneumonia and nearly died. That's when a physician told the Barneses their infant had Down syndrome and recommended the couple institutionalize him. He warned that little Gordon likely would not live past his 16th birthday and that his presence in the home would "disgrace" the rest of the family.

Barnes was taken aback by the diagnosis but shocked at the doctor's advice. She told her husband she would not surrender her child to an institution but would do her best to raise him at home. That's what she and her family did.

"From the beginning he will be raised as one of the family," she said at the time. He would be given as much responsibility as he could handle and treated like his four younger siblings. "My other children loved him and took part in the things he did."

As Gordon was growing up, the Barneses were active in assisting to identify and develop services to help their son and others like him in Jefferson City, including participation in a sheltered workshop. Gordon also became active in Boy Scouts and in Special Olympics, and enjoyed winning medals and proudly wearing them.

While Gordon is no longer in the Bible study class, which later became known as the class for the handicapped, the group bears his name. After his death, the church named it the Gordon Barnes Class.

Today, class members range from 20-25 to older adults, Barnes explained. As the class director, she and other workers, including teacher Susie Farmer and substitute teacher Kay Brejcha, treat the students like Barnes treated Gordon.

"People said, 'They can't do that,'" Barnes said. "But I always said, 'Let them try….'"

Co-workers say she keeps track of birthdays and — after 51 years — usually understands even what students with speaking disabilities are saying. She has discovered that students look out for each other and are sympathetic when one voices a problem.

"That is the story of their life," Barnes said knowingly. "And they want you to hear about it…." The teachers help the class work through those issues and steer them back to the Bible study portion of class.

"I enjoy working with these handicapped kids," Barnes admitted. "At least I started out with them when they were kids."

Likely they will always be her kids, too.