As the local Navigator team leader, the Taylorsville resident is helping provide a network of support for about 180 families of children with medical conditions, ranging from autism to Williams syndrome. Along with parents having the opportunity to connect with people in similar situations, Allen said the group helps bolster youth socialization skills through programs like the Cooking Club.
“The main reason for the Cooking Club is to empower these young people. I want them to know they have something very valuable to offer and can serve and give back. I want the community to realize they are there and the community to see them as valuable as well. It brings such joy to me when I see my daughter realize [what] she can do and see her help people,” she said, adding her 18-year-old daughter, Courtney Rediger, has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, seizure disorder, cortical dysplasia and left hemiparesis. “She may very well be the first student from her class — self-contained students — that will graduate this year with Governor Community Service cords. That means she has completed 300 hours of volunteering over her four years of high school. She has more than that documented now and is just entering her senior year.
“She has struggled so much through the years medically and educationally but she always kept trying. She inspires me so much. My heart is service and I have always told her she can give back. Just because she has a disability doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have something to offer. She has served alongside me during the summer feeding program, made drinks many a Tuesday night at the Friendship Table, and [has] done other service [work].”
Meeting from 4:30 to 7 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month at NorthPointe Church in Adairsville, the Cooking Club provided a meal to the Good Neighbor Homeless Shelter in July and cakes for a 91-year-old’s birthday party on Thursday. Along with the group preparing meals for others, Allen also is trying to organize a canning class, which will serve as both an educational and charitable venture.
“I really just always hope people can see they are important and needed for something,” Allen said. “The canning class we are considering will hopefully bring some older ladies in to share with us something that is such a talent, but few take time to learn from them. Afterward, the canned jellies, jams, etc., can be given one by one to others just as a way to ‘pay it forward.’
“... [The Cooking Club is] about serving and blessing and everyone realizing they themselves have something to offer. Sometimes the best gifts are the simplest ones and just knowing someone took the time to think of giving.”
Geared toward teenagers and adults, the club also is open to people who are not diagnosed with a developmental or physical disability and want to serve others through cooking. The offering, which featured participants ages 13 to 37 during its July gathering, helps people combine their culinary interests with social interaction.
One of the club’s most enthusiastic members is Brian Pate, a 25-year-old Cartersville resident who is building upon his cooking expertise that he initially learned from his grandmother. Living with Down syndrome, Pate prepares various dishes in his personal life and baked a pair of desserts during the club’s first two outreach projects.
“Brian’s grandmother, Jane Hambrick, began teaching Brian to cook when she kept him in the afternoons, once or twice weekly,” said Brian’s mother, Norma Pate. “Brian is able to make several dishes independently, including meat loaf. [He] does all the food preparation for most of his dishes, including the cutting and measuring. Brian is famous for his meat loaf, senate bean soup and most especially banana pudding. Brian is an excellent reader, although he struggles with comprehension. [His grandmother and I] are working on this deficit through the reading of recipes.”
Formed in February 2010, the Bartow County Navigator Team is an offering of Parent to Parent of Georgia’s volunteer leadership program titled the Navigator Project. Allen said the team’s core group also consists of Kim Chester, Bartow County Schools’ parent mentor; Cheryl Barnes with Babies Can’t Wait; and Joe Robinson with Challenger sports.
According to P2P’s educational materials, “NTs are a countywide, parent-led volunteer network that provide more opportunities of recreation, education and socialization of children with special needs. Teams collaborate with local agencies or existing programs to include special needs children or to create new programs/events for them.”
Bartow’s group is one of 45 Navigator Teams representing 68 counties across Georgia.
“Wendy Allen, team leader for the Bartow County Navigator Team, has done an excellent job as a volunteer representative of P2P,” said Sandra Humphreys, Navigator Project supervisor for Parent to Parent of Georgia. “She has engaged her community to join her in strengthening families of children with special needs by offering them recreational and training opportunities.
“Through these events children are given a chance [to] show off their abilities, learn social skills and in some cases progress to a more inclusive — with typical peers — program. Parents, who often feel isolated, are connected to parents faced with their same struggles so they can network with each other and build natural friendships and supports. This is exactly what P2P had in mind when they started the Navigator Project [six] years ago.”
For Allen, seeing Navigator Team participants blossom over the past few years has been a rewarding experience.
“For two years, we have taken a group to see Christmas lights. One of the young men — his name is Anthony — he really wouldn’t order from a menu because he has cerebral palsy and it affects his speech,” Allen said. “But now when we go somewhere he will look at me first and he’ll know I’m not going to do it for him, but that I am there to help him. And then he will order his own food off the menu and he knows it’s OK.
“And sometimes ... in any situation, special needs or not, kids won’t listen to their parents but they’ll listen to somebody else. So his parents have probably been trying to get him to do that for years and he wouldn’t do it with them. ... I absolutely love [being a part of these experiences]. Anthony [also] threw the opening pitch when we had our Braves night this year. Giving them chances to do things like that, that they’ve never dreamed of doing, [is wonderful]. [And] to me ... when I experienced him ordering his own food — [when] he might have been too shy to have done that before or scared they wouldn’t understand him — it’s like me throwing the first pitch. It is [very rewarding].”
For more information about the Bartow County Navigator Team, call Allen at 770-547-0234 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.