Major Walter Droz says if you meet three kids with autism, all you’ve really done is meet three kids with autism—because the experience is never the same.
“You haven’t met what autism really is,” says Droz, whose son Walter Droz III has a severe case of the developmental disorder. “The manifestations of autism are so different with every child, and as a parent you get lost as to when are you a parent and when you’re basically a social worker. You’re taking your child to appointments and therapy sessions. So, people just need a chance to be a parent and a human being. That’s what we’re trying to offer them here in Elizabeth.”
In July, The Salvation Army’s Elizabeth Temple, where Droz and his wife, Lila, are co-pastors, began a support group for parents, caregivers, and family of children with special needs. The church, in Elizabeth, N.J., surveyed the community and found a major unmet need for services for families of special needs children. The group, which meets once a month, also includes support for children with Down syndrome and physical needs.
“There’s a whole spectrum in there,” Droz says. “Me, having an autistic son, that has been on my heart to service these folks who are in desperate need of help.
“We started small and slow, and I think people are enjoying it,” he adds. “I think it’s a chance for them to talk out what they’re feeling and going through. Having special needs children is not an easy thing. It’s a challenge and it’s something that unless you’re a part of that world, it’s hard to comprehend and understand the challenges that come with that. As a parent, you try to do the best for your children, but sometimes it’s hard.”
The Salvation Army worked through the local schools and distributed flyers to get the word out. A promotional day and dinner also helped publicize the support group, which uniquely offers child care.
Droz says about 10 families are involved and have been faithfully coming to the monthly meetings.
“Basically, parents come and we have a chat time, and our hope is that we coming alongside, and me being a part of that world telling them I understand and empathize, can kind of bridge the gap we have to our corps life.”
Droz says the group doesn’t “hide the faith side” and lets people know The Salvation Army is there “to support you in a holistic way.” Each meeting includes prayer, and some families have felt led to come to church.
“We’ve made a concerted effort to really show folks who we are,” he says. “We’re not just a group. We’re a church who is offering you this service.”
The Rev. Leonard Grayson, pastor of True Word Community Christian Center in Elizabeth, co-leads the meetings with Droz. Grayson has a lot to offer because he has an autistic grandson.
Droz says the group may start meeting twice a month and also offer a Bible study in the future. He emphasized that the leaders are not professionals but just offering support at this point.
“Right now, we’re just kind of feeling ourselves out,” Droz says, “and making sure the folks feel safe and that they can come to a place where they can be themselves and have someone to understand who they are.”
For more information on The Salvation Army’s Elizabeth, N.J., Temple, go to https://easternusa.salvationarmy.org/new-jersey/elizabeth/