When it comes to turning what seems to be a negative into a positive, no one does it better than Nettie Hatcher.
Hatcher's daughter, who is now 18, has special needs. When her daughter was just four years old, Hatcher and her husband took her to church, where they were told their child could go into the nursery. This was a relief for Hatcher, who said her daughter's epilepsy required that she have one-on-one attention.
"She was barely walking at the time," Hatcher said of her daughter. "For the first three weeks, we put her in the nursery and it was wonderful. The fourth week, there were signs up and down the hall that said the nursery is for ages two and under. We thought that didn't apply to us because she had special needs."
But Hatcher said the children's minister told them their daughter could no longer come into the nursery, because she was too old to be in there. He directed them to a room down the hall where a television was waiting.
"He said, 'you can sit in there with her and watch the service on TV,' " she recalled. "My heart was broken. That experience really showed me how our world doesn't really understand families with children who have special needs. It wasn't that he was being mean. It was just that these are the rules and you have to follow them. Really, sometimes, you have to make adjustments to the rules. That experience stuck with me and embedded in me the need to do something. I felt like, if I don't do it, no one else will."
It was from this that Hatcher's ministry, Breathe, was born. Hatcher went to her pastor at Heritage Church in Moultrie and shared with him her desire that families with special needs children would be ministered to, and that she wanted to do something to help them.
"He was like, let's do it," she said, smiling.
That was four years ago. The ministry started in a classroom on Sundays, where parents were able to drop off their children and go to church themselves, knowing their children were being taught on their level and being engaged with music, crafts and games. Hatcher said this was an important step because statistics show that about 85 percent of families with special needs children don't attend church.
Since then, they have built a Breathe Center, which has a state-of-the-art sensory room that includes what Hatcher calls "really nice equipment" such as a ball pit and other sensory materials that help the kids and adults that come there by calming or stimulating them. They now not only offer classes on Sundays, but they also offer respite care on a quarterly basis.
"For four hours, we do games, crafts, face painting and we usually have a band; we dance. The parents are able to get a break. Our youngest is nine months old, and the oldest is in his 70s. The last one we had, we had about 150 people with special needs there, and we had about 225 volunteers," she said. The needs of those in attendance range from autism, ADD, ADHD, Down's syndrome, epilepsy and cerebral palsy.
During the respite time, Hatcher said family members do everything from take a nap to grocery shopping to going out for a meal. It's a much-need service, she added. "Respite care is very expensive so most families don't get it, so this is huge for this area," she said.
In addition to the respite events, the center offers classes and resources for parents with special needs children, including marital counseling, training on waivers and individual education plans and transitioning into adulthood. Hatcher is trained as a Parent to Parent of Georgia instructor, and teaches classes herself. Parent to Parent of Georgia is a statewide support program for families of children with disabilities, and the classes and resources offered are usually only available in Atlanta.
"There are no other classes in this area, so the families usually have to travel to Atlanta. Families in South Georgia just can't do that," she said.
Hatcher knows firsthand how important these resources are.
"When my daughter was young, I didn't understand her rights and what I should ask for. Education is a huge thing for me. I didn't know anybody who had a child with special needs. I didn't know where to go or what to do," she said. "Now we can help teach parents about this so they can be prepared and it's not so overwhelming."
The next respite event is planned for March, but will be a little different than what they normally have. The ministry is supported in part by runs held periodically, and the one this spring will be incorporated into a Family Fun Day.
"We will feed them, and there will be games and activities, in addition to the run and walk," she said. They are hoping to raise enough funds to obtain a handicap van to be able to assist families with doctor visits and other transportation needs.
Although Breathe was her dream, Hatcher is quick to say that she couldn't do what she does without volunteers. Once she put the word out that Breathe would be helping others, she says volunteers began to "come out of the woodwork." And they still are.
"It's not about me, it's about the team that I have," she said.
In the long run, Hatcher knows that what she and her team is doing will make a difference, not just in the lives of the families they serve, but in their own lives as well.
"When I die, I don't want to be remembered as the girl with pretty clothes or the girl who had a pretty car, or any kind of material things. I want to be remembered as the one who gave everything she had away to help others. I truly believe we will never experience true joy until we give ourselves away to help someone else," she said.
When asked how she came up with the name for the ministry, Hatcher referred to verses found in the Bible – Ezekiel 37:1-14. In the verses, Ezekiel is shown a valley of dry bones, and God tells Ezekiel that he can breathe life back into those dry bones.
Hatcher said that spoke to her, since she had felt as if she was in a valley of dry bones when her daughter was younger. It became her dream to see life breathed back into the families of other special needs children – and that they wouldn't have to walk that journey alone. She's now seen that happen, in the growth of Breathe and in her church.
"Now on any given Sunday, there are wheelchairs lining the aisles. It's normal for us now. A lot of people feel rejected, so they don't even try to go to church. Our mission is to change that."
For more information on Breathe, contact Hatcher at nettie@heritage life.org, or call 229-891-3421.
To contact editor Angye Morrison, call 382-4321.